Francis (née Frances) Marion Beynon, journalist, novelist, suffragist (born 26 May 1884 in Streetsville, ON; died 5 October 1951 in Winnipeg, MB). Francis Marion Beynon has been noted for her courage as a pacifist, her outspoken anti-religious views and her anti-racism.
Francis Marion Beynon was the second youngest child born into a farming family of three girls and four boys. Her parents, Rebecca Manning Beynon and James Barnes Beynon, were strict Methodists, determined that their children should accept the tenets of their religion. Three of Rebecca’s brothers were Methodist ministers, and she was involved in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In the 1870s, the family moved to Streetsville, Ontario, where Francis was born. In 1889, they moved west to seek a better life, settling in Hartney, Manitoba.
Francis became close with and influenced by her older sister Lillian. Although both were writers and activists in the women’s movement, Lillian and Francis maintained different views of their childhood experiences and about religion. In her autobiographical novel, Aleta Dey (1919), Francis portrays the religion of her heroine’s father and mother as gloomy and terrifying: “I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened me into servility.”
Early Career and Activism
Francis Marion Beynon trained as a teacher, but taught only briefly near Carman, Manitoba. In 1908, she left her career in teaching and moved to Winnipeg, where her sister Lillian lived and worked as a journalist. Francis worked in advertising with the T. Eaton Company in Winnipeg and was drawn into Lillian’s circle. She became involved in the Manitoba Political Equality League (MPEL), a group Lillian had helped to found. Francis was also active in the short-lived literary club she started with her sister — called Quill Club — and the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
In 1912, Beynon became an editor and columnist the Grain Growers’ Guide. During her five years at the paper, she worked on “The Country Homemakers" and "The Sunshine Guild" sections. (She also edited a children’s page in the paper under the name “Dixie Patton” and wrote the “Country Girl’s Ideas” column.) The Country Homemakers was a women’s page similar to Lillian’s column in the Weekly Free Press and Prairie Farmer, combining a range of topics from feminism and radicalism to recipes. As Francis wrote on 25 December 1912, “The women’s page of tomorrow will be filled, I hope, with broader questions, including those which have no special relation to sex.”
As a member of the MPEL, Beynon took part in the successful campaign for women’s suffrage. Alongside other high profile members of the movement — including Nellie McClung and E. Cora Hind — Beynon presented numerous petitions for women’s suffrage to government and performed in the 1914 mock parliament at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg.
When the Liberal government of Tobias Norris came to power in 1915, it promised to introduce a bill for women’s suffrage if presented with 17,000 signatures. After over 40,000 signatures were presented, the Liberals introduced a suffrage bill to the legislature; however, it did not include women’s right to hold office, a fact discovered by Lillian. Before the bill was made public, Francis mobilized the pro-suffrage Manitoba Grain Growers Association, a powerful Liberal supporter. Norris agreed to change the bill after the Grain Growers threatened to withdraw its support for the Liberal party.
First World War
When the First World War broke out, it was something most Canadian suffragists supported. They also supported Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act; they enfranchised (gave the right to vote to) the female relatives of soldiers serving overseas, soldiers’ widows, and women who were themselves serving in the military. However, those same laws disenfranchised most men and women who were born in enemy countries. Nellie McClung, for instance, Manitoba’s most famous suffragist, supported the wartime election laws and the war effort. Francis Marion Beynon opposed both.
On 27 December 1916, in the Grain Growers’ Guide, Beynon spoke out against “the tyranny of unrepresentative government and the injustice of debarring any portion of the people from the franchise because of the accident of birth.” She was appalled by the violence of the war and wrote in defence of men who refused to go to war: “He has a right to ask himself, and look diligently for the answer to the question, whether the destruction of armament has ever cured a nation of the desire to fight.”
Beynon’s pacifist views may have been a factor in her resignation from the Guide. As Barbara Freeman writes, "There is no evidence to suggest she was fired or forced to resign [...] if anything, she saw the writing on the wall and made the decision to leave for her own reasons, some of which were no doubt political and spiritual." Beynon left Winnipeg in 1917, and moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she joined her sister Lillian and her sister’s husband A.V. Thomas.
Aleta Dey and Later Life
Francis Beynon published Aleta Dey in 1919. Though it is a novel — and therefore a work of fiction — it is also autobiographical, containing characters and situations similar to those in Beynon’s life. For instance, the protagonist, Aleta, is an outspoken opponent of the war. When taking part in an anti-war demonstration in Winnipeg, Aleta is killed by a pro-war youth.
During her decades living in the United States, Francis Beynon supported herself by working briefly as a trust company clerk and by writing under the name Ginty Beynon. In the 1920s, she moved to Manhattan’s bohemian Greenwich Village and became editor of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s monthly publication, The Lookout. She moved back to Winnipeg in 1950, where she died the following year.
Aleta Dey received little notice when it was first published. However, it experienced a revival in the 1980s, during feminism’s “second wave.” In 1988, the feminist publishers Virago republished the novel with an introduction by historian Anne Hicks. Since then, Francis Beynon has been reconstructed as one of the major figures in the Manitoba and Canadian suffrage movements. Beynon has been noted for her courage as a pacifist, her outspoken anti-religious views and her anti-racism. The novel itself has received critical acclaim: On 3 June 2014, CBC’s Canada Writes program praised it as a “Great Canadian War Novel.” Wendy Lill’s play The Fighting Days (1980) features Francis Marion Beynon as a suffragist and pacifist who was more uncompromising and courageous than her sister Lillian.