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Limited Opportunities


For women who were either forced or chose to take on wage labour, there were a limited number of opportunities available to them. Many jobs were extensions of their domestic roles. For instance, domestic service, one of the most common female jobs, involved a woman performing household chores for wage in another family's home. In early 20th century, there was a large demand for domestic servants, so much so, that in the campaign to attract settlers to Western Canada, one of the main groups that was targeted was young women willing to become domestic servants. In an article entitled "Women Wanted," author Jessie Saxby writes "It is not the domestic servants who have a hard lot in our land. It is the domestic servants we need, and have not enough of." 1


According to these articles and pamphlets, the demand for domestic servants was so high that women could easily replace one employment for another if they were not satisfied with the wage or their treatment. Employers complained that this situation led to servants expecting light workloads, high pay and equal treatment. However, if this was the case for some servants, it was not the case for all. For instance, in her article "The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women," Anne Gagnon argues that francophone domestic servants were never well-paid, were overworked, and were sometimes treated unfairly by employers. Her article points to the fact that with the lack of labour regulations, all women workers, including domestic servants, could easily become the victims of unfair treatment and abuse.

Women working in a laundry house, Calgary.  Glenbow ArchivesOther sources of employment for women also fell in line with their domestic skills. These jobs ranged in their level of skill and pay. For instance, working as a laundress or a farm-aid was generally lower on the skill and pay level. Becoming a stenographer (shorthand typist) or office clerk, a dressmaker or a milliner (hat-maker) required more skill and, thus, were better paying. In many cases, husbands would own businesses, such as dress or hat stores in which their wives would perform this skilled labour. Sometimes women would take over the running of the store upon their husbands' death and would earn enough money to open their own shop. Two rapidly expanding professions open to women were nursing and teaching. As we will see in the Education and Health Care sections, although these were professions of "modest social status," they paid better than most female work and were one of the few professions that offered women career opportunities. They also afforded greater independence since women often had to move away from home to the cities to receive training and they could accept positions outside the province and even outside Canada. Both professions were still considered acceptable because they were in line with women's domestic skills. Women in their roles as mothers were already responsible for the health and education of their children.

There were a few women who entered forms of wage labour that were considered unacceptable to society. On the low end of the scale, some women chose prostitution. Prostitutes usually worked in the growing urban areas or boomtowns, where industries, like coal mining, hired large numbers of single men who looked to various of leisure to spend their wages. The number of prostitutes also increased during the Depression when desperate conditions forced some women to chose it as their only means of survival. Prostitution had the benefit of affording women a relatively large amount of money in a short period of time, but it also made them more vulnerable to many dangers. 


At the other end of the scale, it was unacceptable for women to enter many high-paying male-dominated professions, like medicine and engineering. However, once universities in Western Canada opened their doors to women, a few began earning their degrees in these areas. Many who did so found it was easiest to practise in remote rural areas where men did not wish to go or to enter medical fields that were in line "female" areas of interest such as obstetrics or gynecology.



  • 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.

  • Jackel, Susan.  A Flannel Shirt and Liberty.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982.

  • Silverman, Elaine Leslau.  The Last Best West.  Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.

  • Wetherall, Donald and Irene Kmet.  Useful Pleasures.  Lindsay: John Deyell Company, 1990.



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