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Ideal Womanhood


In an essay on gender constructions in the Canadian north west mission field, Myra Rutherdale discusses how the image of the early missionary was very masculine. Missionaries like Father Lacombe and John McDougall were reputed for their masculine characteristics: their boldness, decisiveness, and tendency towards action and success in the outdoor life. In McDougall’s writings, he recounts his adventures in the wilderness either while hunting, traveling down rapids in canoes or surviving with the minimum supplies in the harshest of conditions.

The women associated with these missions were often presented as the image of ideal femininity - chaste, pious, the perfect mother to her family and community and enduringly loyal to the male missionary. Elizabeth Chantler McDougall was nicknamed the "Madonna of the West," as she apparently exemplified all these qualities. John McDougall, her son, writes of her:

"Mother was a strong Christian woman - content, patient, plodding, full of quiet, restful assurance, pre-eminently qualified to be the companion and helper of one who had to hew his way in the wildness of his new world."

Elizabeth McDougall.  Glenbow Archives.The nuns also fulfilled a wifely or motherly role in helping the orders of religious priests and brothers in educating and caring for school children. As well they looked after many of the domestic chores of the day-to-day life of the priests. In serving Christ, they looked to the example of Mary and other biblical women in cultivating the virtues and understanding of their work.

One of the key ways the female missionaries were to aid in conveying the Christian ideal was by acting as role models for Aboriginal women. By displaying the virtues of ideal womanhood, it was hoped that Aboriginal women would in turn adopt these qualities. Myra Rutherdale states there was little discussion of teaching Aboriginal men to be proper gentlemen; however, there was much discussion about turning women into proper ladies. For instance, in a 1907 article published in the Canadian Churchman a Canadian woman wrote:

"Dear sister-settlers amongst the Indians, there is a power given you from on high which is intended you should use among them or any other race with whom you may be placed - it is the power of influence…In your Christian households, in your modest demeanor, in your fair dealings with all let them see what they should seek to copy more than the jewels and costly attire which in their eyes are all that are needed to constitute a lady." 1

Women were believed to be the center of the family and home and, thus, the center of the community. If she was "civilized" she would in turn spread "civilization" to her community and to her children - the next generation. Although men directed this civilizing process, it was women, first the missionary women and then aboriginal women that were its main medium.


  • Castonguay, Thérèse. A Leap in Faith: The Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada. Vol. 1. Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, 2000.
  • McDougall, Annie. "Pioneer Life in the 1870s." Alberta History 1998 46(3): 25-27.
  • McDougall, John. Parsons on the Plains. Ed. Thomas Bredin. Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1971.
  • Rutherdale, Myra. "I Wish the Men Were Half as Good: Gender Constructions in the Canadian North-Western Mission Field, 1860-1940." Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women's History. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.




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