Separate Spheres

Family_thuNotions of the private and public sphere paralleled ideas of ideal gender roles. The ideal woman was a good nurturer; as the manager of the household it was her duty to impart rules of morality and propriety to her children and her own conduct was supposed to epitomize these rules. The ideal man was a good provider; he earned the family income, providing the means necessary for a comfortable existence and he also directed the household, making important decisions and reprimanding those that stepped outside their bounds. In many ways these ideas concerning the public and private sphere and gender roles came to dictate the lives of women in Western Canada. However, in many ways their lives also contradicted these ideas and opened the way for a society in which women could step outside the private sphere.

Much of the writing on pioneering women focuses on their role in the private or domestic sphere. In the campaign to attract women to Western Canada, pamphlets boasted that single women would find suitable husbands almost immediately upon their arrival and, in fact, few remained unmarried beyond a year or two of immigrating. They also boasted of the quality of Canadian husbands, calling them born-and-bred gentlemen and illustrating their kindness with examples of how they helped a wife with her domestic duties when needed. The West was portrayed as a perfect place to raise children; the fresh air and open spaces supposedly ideal for their mental and physical health. Many pamphlets also described in detail women's work in the home either as wives or as domestic servants (a subject which is examined in more detail in the section, Work) and explained how in the west it was more highly appreciated and more dignified. For instance, in a book entitled West Nor'-West, the Englishwoman author Jessie Saxby encourages women to move to Canada to fill the need for domestic servants, but her comments also seem to speak to potential wives and the domestic labour they would perform:

"I want them to believe that the home duties, the domestic service, which they cannot, or will not, do at home are neither degrading nor exhausting; and that if they will but fling the prejudices of caste aside, and say honestly and bravely, 'I want to earn my own living,' they will find happy homes glad to receive them in Canada, North-West." 1

Other written accounts of pioneer women's lives, such as the ones in Elaine Silverman's The Last Best West, reinforce the existence of traditional notions of women's place in society. In the case of courtship, women were expected to remain demure and controlled and in one instance a young woman is chastised for being too forward with a potential suitor:

"I didn't know that when you are introduced to a young man, you don't jump up and shake hands with him. This geologist, Leonard, said, 'You're not supposed to do that. When you're introduced to a man, you only say, 'How do you do?' If you jump up and shake hands with him that shows that you are terribly interested in him.' I said I somehow felt like shaking hands with the man. 'Oh,' he said, 'You really have to be trained in etiquette.'" 2

Silverman also describes how many women arrived in Canada as children with their parents and that, in the accounts of their childhood, it is evident that child raising remained very conservative on the frontier.

Families were very hierarchal and children, especially girls, were foremost expected to learn obedience. One woman states,

"I can remember some good spankings. We girls always felt that our brother got away with murder. He did, too, because he was the youngest and a boy." 3

Therefore, it seems pioneer women's place in society was to a large degree followed traditional notions of the domestic sphere and womanhood; they were expected to get married, have children and work in the home and throughout it all to be subservient to men. Their domestic role, although not paid, was seen as necessary to the civilization of the Canadian West - as Jessie Saxby says,

"The want of home life is keenly felt as a very great calamity by those western settlers…The want of feminine influence tends to make the men (so they acknowledged) restless, dissatisfied, reckless and godless." 4



Sources and Suggested Readings:

Cavanaugh, Catherine. "Irene Marryat Parlby: An 'Imperial Daughter' in the Canadian West, 1896-1934." Telling Tales. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: Unversity of British Columbia Press, 2000.


Jackel, Susan. Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1880-1914. Vancouver: Unversity of British Columbia Press, 1982.


Millar, Nancy. Once Upon a Wedding. Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000.


Silverman, Elaine Leslau. The Last Best West: Women on the Alberta Frontier 1880-1930. Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.