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Stephen Leacock's Take on Women

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Diverse Nature of Men and Women

Technology Dispossesses Women

Women's Rights

Separate Spheres

Unequal Wages

Final Answer to that Woman Question


Stephen Leacock, a famous Canadian writer and humourist, lived and wrote at the same time as Nellie McClung. His attitude towards women and their role was a typical example of the anti-feminist atmosphere against which women like the Famous 5 had to struggle.

In October 1915, the same year that Nellie McClung's collection of essays entitled In Times Like These was published, Maclean's magazine published an essay by Leacock entitled, "The Woman Question." It is likely that he wrote this essay as a direct response to McClung's speeches and writings on the subject of women's suffrage, since he mocks or attempts to refute the very same points that she argues in In Times Like These.

As a response to Leacock's essay, McClung wrote an essay entitled, "Speaking of Women," which was also published by Maclean's magazine in May 1916.

His opening anecdote makes short shrift of the claim that allowing women to vote would be a panacea, solving all the problems of the young Dominion of Canada:

* * *

I was sitting the other day in what is called the Peacock Alley of one of our leading hotels, drinking tea with another thing like myself, a man. At the next table were a group of Superior Beings in silk, talking. I couldn't help overhearing what they said—at least not when I held my head a little sideways.

They were speaking of the war.

"There wouldn't have been any war," said one, "if women were allowed to vote."

"No, indeed," chorused all the others.

The woman who had spoken looked about her defiantly. She wore spectacles and was of the type that we men used to call, in days when we still retained a little courage, an Awful Woman.

"When women have the vote," she went on, "there will be no more war. The women will forbid it."

She gazed about her angrily. She evidently wanted to be heard. My friend and I hid ourselves behind a little fern and trembled.

But we listened. We were hoping that the Awful Woman would explain how war would be ended. She didn't. She went on to explain instead that when women have the vote there will be no more poverty, no disease, no germs, no cigarette smoking and nothing to drink but water.

It seemed a gloomy world.

"Come," whispered my friend, "this is no place for us. Let us go to the bar."

"No," I said, "leave me. I am going to write an article on the Woman Question. The time has come when it has got to be taken up and solved."

So I set myself to write it.

                                                                  Stephen Leacock, "The Woman Question"

* * *

With that, Leacock sets himself up as the expert who will settle the "Woman Question" once and for all. He defines the problem as the following:

  • The majority of women lack the means to support themselves
  • Although the world of work is open to women, they cannot do the work because women lack the:
    • physical strength required by labour jobs
    • mind for figures and sustained attention required in business
    • ability to play by the "rules of the game"
  • Therefore, marriage is the only viable means for the support of women
  • But mechanization has decreased women's contribution: machines streamline weaving and sewing, cleaning, cooking, childcare, etc.
  • As a result, women's contribution to the home has decreased, and rather than being a "help-mate", she has "become a burden that must be carried," so men are less inclined to marry—at least until they can afford to support a wife
  • Thus, unmarried women are increasing in number, and imagine that they should have the same rights and career opportunities as any man
  • However, women cannot be expected to support themselves, because too many women want to work at the few jobs that they are capable of doing, which drives wages down below a living wage
  • The solution to this problem is for the state to support women who do not have a husband to support them

To read further excerpts from Leacock's writing on women, explore the quicklinks above.

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