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Mrs. Brown on binder on farm Delia.  Glenbow ArchivesThe demands of homesteading often rendered the gender division of labour impractical.  Men would often help out with the more labour-intensive domestic tasks, like laundry and the collecting of firewood.  More often than men helped out with the domestic labour, however, women would help their husbands with the outside work.  Especially in the spring and fall, women would help with the sewing and harvesting on farms and the butchering and herding on ranches.  Women helped clear the land of trees and roots, they drove teams of plough animals, helped with seeding, mowed, raked and hauled grain during harvest.  They would help in the care of animals and the birthing of new calves.  Many women would forfeit wearing a dress for this work and would instead dress more like a man in trousers and shirts. 

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Heritage Trails #253 - Threshing: Feeding the Threshing Crew

Before the days of combines and tractors, Alberta farmers depended on crews of travelling threshers to help bring in the harvest. It would take a crew of about ten or twelve men a week to thresh the grain at each farm.

And it was the farm women who took on the enormous task of feeding these hungry men.

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As Historian Sheila McManus argues, there were mixed feelings regarding this outside work. Some women enjoyed the release from household duties and the fresh air and sense of freedom that outdoor work afforded. One young woman commented:

“I loved the land and was not bothered by having to spend the week in overalls and cap… Come Sunday, I was truly uncomfortable in a dress.” 1

For others, working outside meant double duty, since they were still expected to complete their household chores – she, like her husband, could not rest after a long day out on the field, but rather had to prepare a meal, do the cleaning and catch up on her sewing in the evenings. Also, McManus states that discussion of women’s outdoor work was often minimized in public discourse because this work was considered outside the bounds of feminine respectability. Although in reality pioneer women rolled up their sleeves and helped out in the labour-intensive work of the field, the image of the neat and composed woman who remained in the home was maintained. Women, therefore, were praised mostly for the work they performed inside the home, not the outside work.

This contradiction between the reality and image of women’s work had a major impact on women’s social activism.  On one hand, social activists promoted the reality of women’s work – arguing that because women worked alongside men, contributing both to the domestic and outside labour, they were entitled to more equal rights. As we saw in the Social Activism section, activists called for greater property right because they believed women were not being afforded an equal share in the profits accrued from the farm work. On the other hand, women’s activists still clung to the ideal images of women’s work. They still justified women’s participation in the political sphere on the basis of their traditional role in the domestic sphere – women would clean up society’s ills just as they cleaned their homes and women would care for society just as she cared for her children.  McManus argues that farm women activists in particular clung to this image because they wanted to maintain a united political front with male farmers.  Insisting on women’s rightful sphere kept the farm community from splitting along gender lines and allowed them to fight together against the political and economic threats to their shared community. Women’s work, therefore, lay at the basis of arguments for greater rights and freedoms in the political sphere.  Activists took advantage of both traditional and non-traditional perceptions of women’s work to maneuver and negotiate for women’s place in politics.

Sources:

  • Dodd, Dianne.  "Women and Domestic Technology: Household Drudgery, 'Democratized Consumption,' and Patriarchy."  Framing Our Past.  Eds. Sharon Cook, et al.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.
      

  • Gagnon, Anne.  "'Our Parents did not raise us to be independent:' The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women, 1890-1940." Prairie Forum 1994 19(2): 169-185.
      

  • McManus, Sheila.  "Gender(ed) Tensions in the Work and Politics of Alberta Farm Women, 1905-29."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Randi Warne and Catherine Cavanaugh.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
      

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

  • Wetherall, Donald and Irene Kmet.  Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1991.

 

 

  
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