A Place of Equality?

Woman_on_Binder_thuAt the same time these conventions surrounding women's proper place grew, contradictions were growing alongside them. In fact, Western Canada was seen by many as a place where these conventions would not apply - a place where men and women had to work together both in and outside the home to overcome the numerous obstacles. Therefore, it was perceived and even advertised as a place where women would be free from the constraints of the domestic sphere and notions of ideal womanhood, where they would help out their husbands in the field, ride horses without riding sidesaddle and experience opportunities not available in the "old world." For instance, in a letter to the British press, Agnes Skrine, a ranch woman from Alberta, describes in vivid detail how she spends most of her time outside the home, rather than inside; she states,

"I like both the work and the play here, the time out of doors and the time for coming home. I like the summer and the winter, the monotony and the change. Besides, I like a flannel shirt, and liberty." 1

Also, Irene Parlby, another ranch woman in Alberta who became the second woman in the British Empire to attain a cabinet position, describes in an interview how coming to Canada freed her from parental authority and the constraints of middle-class life in England; she states,

"first of all came the exhilarating feeling of living where the world really was young, where there were no people crowding in on you with their miserable, silly little conventions and pettinesses and prejudices, and all the other barnacles people grow when they congregate together in a community." 2

The hardships faced during the early pioneer years were numerous. Women felt that they shared in these hardships to an equal extent as men; they helped contribute to the family income, they felt its booms and busts just as acutely as men and their prime priority, just like the men, was the survival of the family. In a sense, pioneering life was even more difficult for women because of the loneliness they experienced; unlike men who had more opportunity to go into town or visit with neighbours, women, especially those with young children, were often stuck at home. Before lines of communication such as the radio and telephone were opened, and especially during the long, cold winter, the home could seem like a virtual prison. As will be discussed in the section on social activism, the fact that women faced so many hardships and felt they contributed to an equal degree as men had far-reaching implications on the political sphere. To combat the loneliness, women organized into groups in order to socialize and also to fight for rights that would improve their lot. Many of these women felt their work entitled them to some of the same rights afforded to men, such as property rights. Therefore, women's experience in pioneering life had a great effect on Alberta politics in the 20th century and women's involvement within it.

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: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.

Jackel, Susan. Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1880-1914. Vancouver: University 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.