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.
Heritage Trails #253 - Threshing: Feeding the Threshing
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
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.”
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.
Dodd, Dianne. "Women and Domestic Technology:
Household Drudgery, 'Democratized Consumption,' and Patriarchy." Framing
Our Past. Eds. Sharon Cook, et al. Montreal: McGill University
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