Single Women

The other group of women who seemed to live outside the boundaries of the ideal womanhood and the domestic sphere was the single woman. There were times in a woman's life when it was expected she would be single, such as childhood, young adulthood and widowhood. As a child and a young woman, she was often expected to earn a wage either to help support her family, herself or both. As we will see in the section entitled Work, many young women entered professions, like domestic service, teaching or nursing, and lived away from home. However, it was generally expected that when a woman married she would give up her profession and enter full-time her role as a wife and mother unless necessity dictated otherwise.

Widow_thuThe only other time it was expected that a woman would be single was if her husband died and she became a widow. Prior to changes in Alberta property laws in the 1910s and 1920s, a woman was not even guaranteed a share in the family property when her husband died. Therefore widowhood was a very precarious situation for women. It was also a very common situation for women, as many outlived their husbands due to illness, war or the fact that many women married much older husbands. It was generally expected that a widow's children or other relatives would adopt the responsibility for her care, but if they did not a woman could easily be left out in the cold. Divorce for the same reasons was very difficult for women; without any legal claim to the property, children or financial support, divorce was not a very attractive option for women. Physical abuse was considered sufficient reason for divorce and entitled ex-wives to more compensation, but it was difficult to prove. Also, although divorces did occur, they were generally frowned upon by Christian churches and by society as a whole in the early 20th century.

Women who did not get married at all were a rarity in the pioneer period of Western Canada. There was certainly no shortage of men and many came to the West for the purpose of getting married. For those who chose not to marry there were perhaps greater employment opportunities in the West. For instance, the women's professions, like domestic service, nursing and teaching, were in great demand of recruits and also with the growth of cities and factories, many women found employment in urban centres. However, single women were also stigmatized as "spinsters" or "old maids." Their lives often came under greater scrutiny and suspicion within their communities, especially for signs of licentious behaviour. In addition, it was believed that these women were not fulfilling their greater purpose of becoming wives and mothers; they were outside the bounds of the domestic sphere and therefore had potential of becoming dangerous to society. As a result, many single women feared becoming so identified as they grew older and did their best to attract potential husbands to themselves.

Women who did not marry or have children often entered the domestic sphere by becoming surrogate mothers. Becoming midwives, pre-natal and post-natal nurses, orphanage directors and foster parents were professions that many single women entered so that they could still be involved in the birthing and raising of children. Of course, married women with children also took up these jobs, as they were seen as an extension of women's natural skills. Single women were also often asked to enter a home in which a mother had died or left and help out with the raising of the children and domestic chores. Spinster sisters were often the likely candidates for this positions, as is evident in a letter that man sends out to his sister pleading with her to come fill part of the void left by his deceased wife:

"Dear Sister, You will be surprised to hear from me after so many years. Well, I have bad news for you. My dear little wife is dead and I am the loneliest man in all the world. She gave birth to little daughter on the 27th of December. Three days after she went out of her mind and on the 7th of January she took Pneumonia and died about half past three in the afternoon. We buried her Tuesday afternoon in a little cemetery on the prairie about 5 miles from here. I am writing to you to see if you will come and keep house for me and raise my little baby. I would not like to influence you in any way, as I am afraid you would be lonely when I have to go from home as I will now and again. You are used to so much stir in the city. I have 400 acres of land and I have 9 or 10 cows and some hens. If you come you can make all you can out of the butter and eggs and I might be able to pay you a small wage besides. Write and let me as soon as possible what you think of the proposition." 1




Sources and Suggested Readings:

Famous Five Website


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


Swyripa, Frances. "Negotiating Sex and Gender in the Ukrainian Bloc Settlement: East Central Alberta between the Wars." Telling Tales. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.


Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980.