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Manitoba History: Vote Without Victory: The Paradoxical Situation of the Prairie Farm Woman 1910-1930

by Michelle Dodds
Kelvin High School

Number 22, Autumn 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

In 1990 the Manitoba Historical Society conducted its annual Young Historian competitions. Michelle Dodds of Kelvin High School submitted the winning essay in the Grade 12 category. This is an abridged version of her paper.

Before January 25, 1916, Canadian prairie women were not allowed to cast their opinions in the ballot boxes. But on this date women of the province of Manitoba acquired suffrage and set a precedent for other western provinces. In the early decades of the twentieth century, women began to take a stand for their rights. Suffragists and women’s groups appeared, wanting to know why females were not given the same political privileges that males enjoyed. Even the homemakers and the women who did not participate in associations and organizations felt that the laws of the country were geared towards men only. One homemaker wrote in to The Grain Grower’s Guide to voice the opinion that:

Woman is a responsible being as much so as man. It is high time that our women be more independent and that laws be made to prevent the husband from disposing of their joint property without her consent or signature, and that she be treated as the equal of man as to responsibility and worth ... [1]

Manitoba was the first province in Canada to grant the vote to women. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta women obtained support from husbands through rural organizations like the Winnipeg-based Grain Grower’s Association [2] and the farm newspaper, The Grain Grower’s Guide. This support encouraged women to form auxiliaries to the men’s associations and gave them a chance to get involved with the western economy and political agenda. Husbands did for the most part back their wives in their efforts to obtain voting rights. For example, a poll on women s enfranchisement taken by The Grain Grower’s Guide in 1912 showed that 2,957 men endorsed the idea and only 965 were opposed to it. [3]

The Grain Grower’s Guide gave crucial support to rural women who were isolated from feminist meetings in large towns. When Francis Marion Beynon became the editor of “The Country Homemakers” page in 1912, columns on the latest urban conferences and town gatherings were announced and rural women were encouraged to send in their ideas and tips. What started out as a page to help country women realize that they were not alone and to give them honest information, became both that and a promotion for women’s suffrage. Men didn’t always approve — as one husband wrote:

If you don’t stop advocating woman suffrage in your paper you can cancel my subscription. My wife gets the Guide and reads your articles to me at the supper table and it makes things very unpleasant in my house.

Harvesting near Stuartburn, Manitoba, 1918.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Nevertheless, many women were able to profit from the Guide’s endorsement. [4] For these reasons, prairie women had a slightly easier job of getting voting privileges than their eastern counterparts. [5]

Yet, notwithstanding their early victory, prairie farm women did not find the liberation they expected. Farm women could not relate to the perceptions of political freedom advocated by their urban colleagues when they were preoccupied with achieving access to basic human, social and economic necessities. The purpose of this essay is to examine the effects that the difficult prairie environment, isolation, hard physical labour, living conditions, economic situation and social status had on farm women. It will show how, in reality, these problems actually enslaved them, even after they had been given technical democracy through provincial suffrage.

At the turn of the century, Canada was striving to expand, unify, and bring economic development to the western provinces. Exaggerated literature was circulated displaying seemingly endless farming possibilities, easy opportunity for prosperity, and free land for husbands, wives and their future families. Many women from eastern Europe, eastern Canada, and even the United States, moved out with their families to the plains. Several came reluctantly saying, “No power on earth would make me go on a farm. Farming! Why the very word is anathema to me. The mere thought of such a life is intolerable.” [6] Yet, with the promises of their enthusiastic husbands wishing to start a new life, and the immigration propaganda reassuring an existence of “leisurely and refined domesticity, untroubled by worry or fatigue” [7] they hoped that the prairies would prove welcoming.

Cultivating land on the prairies required huge amounts of time, expensive machinery, and steady persistence. Extreme weather was an additional problem. Snow storms which lasted for days made even basic survival difficult. Kathleen Strange recalled how a young hand from her farm went in search of hay in a raging blizzard. He found his way to the barn, but losing his bearings, was unable to return. He then spent hours wandering aimlessly through the snow until he stumbled across the barn of the neighbours, almost frozen to death. [8] Kate Johnson, a prairie farm woman, remembered how a cyclone caused lightning to shatter a bedroom window, and strike her mother on the back. [9] Prairie fires, blazing summer heat, dryness and drought, were all part of a year’s weather. Often there was no protection from these elements. Houses had to be built swiftly of tarpaper or sod. The whole operation demanded a knowledge of farming procedure, and this was something that the first women of the west lacked. Husbands promised so much but frequently could offer their wives no more than land for “... one homestead, a little cold, leaky-roofed shack, a yoke of oxen, and some machinery with chattel mortgages against it.” [10] Propaganda suggested that women were going to live in a quaint country cottage without the problems of busy city life. A common reaction to such circumstances was recorded by one observer of pioneer life on the prairies:

When Mrs. McNeil saw the sod house which was to be her home, all dreams of a cozy comfortable little cabin were shattered and she sat down and cried. [11]

Life on the farm was not what women had expected. The farms were at least a quarter of a mile apart and usually two to three miles apart, and they were even farther away from towns and villages. Isolation made it extremely difficult for women to make the transition to farm life, and very burdensome to initiate or maintain friendships. Understandably, this applied to the husbands as well, yet they were able to get out more often to buy supplies, to take care of farm finance, or to go to town on business. This enabled them not only to meet more people, but also to obtain a greater sense of community, or to learn to speak English if, as for so many, the language was not their mother tongue. Immigration brought settlers from a variety of cultures and language groups and made it complicated for women to communicate with their neighbours. [12] Men also had the advantage of companionship with their hired help while working in the fields all day. Their wives had almost no camaraderie, especially with members of their own sex, unless it was with daughters or, for the more fortunate few, with kitchen or domestic help. “Unhappily, nobody was able to do much about the albatross of loneliness that hung around the necks of the pioneer women.” [13] They couldn’t leave the farm very often for there was always so much work to do and usually, so many children to look after. A daughter wrote in retrospect:

One summer afternoon mother went on another visiting trip ... to a neighbour who lived only two miles away. The occasion was quite an event, for it was the first time that she had been off the farm since the two year old twins were born. [14]

The loneliness that was accompanied by this isolation made some women almost sick with yearning for a friend:

Once I visited another of the early settlers. She was a young woman with a baby and she was lonely too. She had come from Utah with her husband....When we met, we ran to each other; we each had to speak to a woman, and put our arms around each other’s neck and just had a good cry. [15]

Prairie farm woman near Gardenton, Manitoba, circa 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Isolation affected not only the emotions but the practical side of life as well. Farmhouses might be dozens miles away from markets, doctors, hospitals, schools, churches, and community halls. [16] The remoteness of medical help was by far the most hindering if not devastating aspect. Most farm women learned not to depend on a doctor for anything, for he was rarely able to come, and if he attempted the long journey, he hardly ever got to the destination with time enough to cure or treat the sick:

There was no telephone to get in touch with the doctor. The only thing you could do was to send somebody on horseback to-get the doctor. But, of course if the roads were bad, he probably never got there ... so she’d have to gather up her courage and do what she never did before. [17]

Strength and ingenuity on the part of farm women, in the forms of home remedies and sacred dog-eared medical books, saved many lives. However, when the need arose, as it frequently did during childbirth, for a hospital bed or immediate surgery, the woman had little hope.

A farm women’s life was filled with hard work, and back breaking labour. She “... was expected to be the first one up in the morning and the last one in bed at night.” [18] Yet, she was motivated to continue by the mere necessity of survival. As the prairie female activist Nellie McClung once observed, women were too busy to complain. [19] While a man’s job was in the field working the land, a women was basically responsible for all other chores:

The only woman in the family, I do all the work. This includes washing, scrubbing, butter-making and house cleaning. It is always difficult and usually impossible to get a woman for even a few hours, and I depend upon my own efforts rather than attempt to find help. [20]

The woman’s primary task was to keep the house clean, comfortable, and well decorated. Although the farm wife had other “duties” to perform, the upkeep of the house was virtually a full-time occupation in itself. She had to prepare the food at every meal, for both her immediate family as well as for the hired hands. All the clothing had to be made, mended and washed. This last task was one of the least enjoyed by farm women. As few as forty-six out of one hundred women had access to a washing machine. [21] Kathleen Strange recorded in her memoirs that washing took her all day, and in order to heat the water she had to carry pails from the stove to the tubs. Not only was this heavy work but dangerous too. She remembered that “more than once I burned myself severely, spilling water on my unprotected hands and legs.” [22] Since raising the children was wholly in her hands too, the farm wife was invariably mother and teacher combined, especially when youngsters could not attend school.

A farm wife’s work typically included not only household activities, but outdoor labours as well. Some farms were too small and unprofitable to hire any men to help out in the fields. Even if this was feasible, threshing became a woman’s job when the men were away. James H. Gray records that when labour was limited, the farm wife would be expected to take loads of grain to town, to follow the binders, and to stook the sheaves. She actually did everything from raking hay to seeding turnips. [23] This included maintaining a vegetable garden for fresh produce and for canning purposes. Raising the animals also became commonplace for the woman, and she fed, cleaned and even nursed the creatures back to health when they were sick. About half of the farm women, approximately 51%, according to the 1922 survey taken by the United Farm Women of Manitoba, looked after the poultry, eggs, and the baby chicks on their land. [24] Since chicken raising was often an innovative concept for the western farmer, women had to experiment at home with egg fertilization, chicken coops, and living conditions for poultry to find the most profitable breed. Kathleen Strange tells how she had to watch and record the first stages of life:

Since we knew nothing whatever about incubating, we decided to set a trial hatch ... put fifty eggs into the machine...and anxiously awaited the results. [25]

A farm woman’s lack of knowledge about chicken breeding was not altogether dissimilar from her lack of knowledge about her own reproductive system. Wives who lived with their husbands on farms had often been married at a very early age; many of them understood only the basic facts of life. They knew little about having babies; consequently, they became pregnant and just waited to see what would occur. Considered as child-bearing bodies from early teenage years onward, wives were expected by husbands to “provide” them with babies who would grow into helping hands around the farm. Due to the unavailability of medical service, only the strongest children actually survived; yet women were constantly pregnant in their childbearing years. Fatigue and sickness, not to mention the danger and pain involved in pregnancy, forced farm women to write to their farm newspapers asking for information concerning birth control:

I am 31, the mother of 7 children, eldest 11 years, and youngest 8 months, not at all strong, and owing to farm conditions, very heavily in debt. I would like to have any information I can get re birth control. [26]

A few decided to get even with selfish husbands to show them that they were fed-up with giving birth all the time:
I knew a woman ... who had a dear friend. She had a mean jealous husband. They had two girls and he made his brag that he’d see that his wife never got the chance to run around. Said there would be kids in his house every year. He’d keep his brag. This was 25 years ago and those things (birth control) weren’t so popular so she said she’d fix him. So she took a good sized of sponge and soaked it with soap suds and put it up next the uterus. [27]

Margaret Sanger, an American nurse and lecturer, was one of the most influential advocates of birth control in the early twentieth century. During her tours of Canada, Sanger spoke favourably of proper contraception and the positive effect that it would have on marriage and motherhood. She was also one of the first to publicly combine the issues of women’s emancipation and reproduction. Sanger questioned how people could be in favour of emancipation “... yet fail to support the most basic freedom, the freedom from undesired pregnancies.” [28] The women of the prairies may have secured political freedom, yet they didn’t have a voice in the vote that really counted—control of their own bodies. [29]

Clearly, a wife was not paid for her work on the farm, and vacations were generally out of the question. An analysis of UFWM survey data reveals that only thirty-two out of one hundred women received any kind of relief from daily pressures. Out of these few, the longest absence was two weeks, and the most common was a single day. [30] These short breaks would often be spent in the closest town or community, buying a few items of clothing or food. Even here, farm women were not given a rest. When the average woman went into town with her husband for the day, she could expect to finish her shopping hours before his business was complete. This was the case frequently because a trip to town for the men meant a visit to the local pub to drink and to socialize. Many women also had numerous tired and hungry children hanging on their sleeves, and nowhere to go. Their only choices were to linger about the stores until they began to feel ashamed and uneasy, or to do as one woman did, and set herself and her baby up in their wagon for several hours. Although this mother was glad to be able to rest, her “heart was sore and lonely, that in all the town where they spent their money, no place was provided for them.” [31] Although the wives did spend money in the town, they were not given the convenience of a rest room in which to relax after their usually hectic day. It was not before 1910 that the first rest rooms were established in the southwestern market town of Virden, Manitoba. [32] As rest rooms became customary, women felt warmer, more comfortable, and welcomed. In fact, doctors agreed that “if there was a rest room in every town there would be fewer sick women.” [33]

While many women also kept the finance books, sometimes they had no money of their own, and no access to that of their husbands. In the same study mentioned, only 13% of the women acknowledged having any plans for their own spending money. These plans included buying food and extras for the house. Any profit that was made on the farm, especially during the formative years of the homestead, went to buy machinery for the work in the fields, and not to purchase kitchen implements. This made the lives of the husbands easier, but did nothing to relieve the burden of the wives. Francis Beynon openly accused husbands of injustice, and Kathleen Strange observed that:

No one, to my mind, works harder than a farm woman, not even the farmer himself. Usually, too, she, has no conveniences, and not even the mechanical aids that her husband enjoys to make his work lighter in the fields. I know of farmers who own big tractors but whose wives still haven’t a washing machine. [34]

Aside from the right to vote, prairie women after 1916 possessed few other liberties. The law still treated them as secondary individuals. Married women had few rights to property, nor did they have any statutory claim to their children. A story presented in installments in the Grain Grower’s Guide for 1914, illustrates the problem that resulted when husbands became disillusioned with their wives or stingy with the finances:

... John Tightwad owned 2 sections of land, clear, many head of stock, a splendid barn, a fair sized house and six children. All that Jennie owned of this was her rather dowdy wardrobe. She hadn’t even a legal share in the children. Jennie at last ... consulted a lawyer. She found that her husband was quite within the law ... She discovered, to her chagrin, that her position in the home of her husband all these years had been that of an unpaid domestic. [35]

As the story ended, John took a fancy to a pretty widow and decided to run away with her, yet not before selling his land to an American speculator. Jennie now had complete responsibility for the children, though she received none of the profit from the sale of the farm. Since it was not socially acceptable for married women to work outside the home, Jennie, who symbolized many prairie wives, was forced to take in washing for a living. [36]

Inevitably, women started to ask themselves, and the farm newspapers, “Why does my husband own all the money and land, although we work together?” [37] The answer was to be found in social attitudes. As a poem revealed in the Farmer’s Advocate & Home Journal the farm women “worked just as hard as a beaver.” Yet:

... as a lady-of-leisure, it seems,
The Government looks on her station
For now, by the rules of the census report
It enters her-No Occupation. [38]

What were prairie farm women searching for in the early part of the twentieth century? Not quite the same things as the middle class feminists of the cities. It was actually the urban women who, despite their later acquisition of the vote, received greater benefit. Western and eastern feminist ideals were different. The suffrage movement in Canada, especially as represented by the National Council of Women, has even been recognized as an urban bourgeois phenomenon controlled by a professional and entrepreneurial elite who wanted females to have the political influence necessary to solve urban problems. [39]

Prairie farm women wanted the vote to improve the lot of women and to raise the awareness of the farming community to their needs. But the vote did not bring equality, freedom, and independence.

Ukrainian women gardening, circa 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Notes

1. The Grain Grower’s Guide, November 5, 1913, p. 10.

2. In fact, the Grain Grower’s Association actually endorsed women’s suffrage as early as 1911.

3. Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 47.

4. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), MG 10, Series, E-1, Box 6. United Farm Women of Manitoba, Farm Homes Survey, 1922. This poll mailed by the United Farm Women of Manitoba (hereafter UFWM) showed that at least 70% of surveyed women read The Grain Grower’s Guide.

5. For example, the women of Ontario did not obtain suffrage until February 27, 1917.

6. Comment made by Kathleen Strange, from her personal memoirs With The West In Her Eyes, published in Canada by The Macmillan Company, 1945, p. 4.

7. Linda Rasmussen, et al., A Harvest Yet To Reap (Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1976), p. 13.

8. Strange, p. 146.

9. From a manuscript in PAM quoted in Heather Robertson, Salt Of The Earth, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1974), p. 80.

10. “The Story of Jennie and John Tightwad,” The Grain Grower’s Guide, October 14, 1914.

11. From Mary C. Bailey’s 1908 manuscript, “Reminiscences of Pioneer Life,” in A Harvest Yet To Reap, p. 34.

12. According to 1916 census figures in A Harvest Yet To Reap, immigrant women in ethnic communities took longer to learn how to speak English than the men.

13. James H. Gray, Boomtime, (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979), p. 83.

14. Rasmussen, p. 64.

15. Ibid.

16. According to the UFWM survey, women were most far away from hospitals, sometimes 80 to 120 miles distant.

17. Rasmussen, p. 68.

18. Gray, p. 72.

19. Rasmussen, p. 43.

20. A letter to the Grain Grower’s Guide by Gertrude Stewart Hyde, September 11, 1909.

21. PAM, UFWM, Farm Homes Survey, 1922.

22. Strange, p. 220.

23. Gray, p. 72.

24. PAM, UFWM survey, 1922.

25. Strange, p. 189.

26. “Mrs. E. J. M.,” The Western Producer, September 29, 1927.

27. Saskatchewan Archives Board, Violet McNaughton Papers, undated, unsigned typescript referred to in A Harvest Yet To Reap, p. 72.

28. Margaret Sanger, as reported in The Province on July 4, 1923. (Quoted in Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1986), p. 61.

29. It was not until 1969 that the Canadian Criminal Code was amended so that provision of contraceptives became legal.

30. PAM, UFWM, Farm Homes Survey, 1922.

31. Mary P. McCallum, “Town Homes for Country Women,” The Grain Grower’s Guide, October 16, 1918, p. 8.

32. Virden was the first town to set up a rest room for visiting farm women. Women in many other farm communities, including Portage and Youngstown, were soon able to benefit from its earlier success.

33. Ibid.

34. Strange, p. 43.

35. “The Story of Jennie and John Tightwad,” October 14, 1914.

36. Most women worked outside the home only between the approximate ages of 15 to 24. Once they were married, they were forced to dedicate their labour to the farm and the family. In 1911, only 10 to 15% of women over 10 years of age were employed for wages. (See A Harvest Yet To Reap, p. 89).

37. Text missing from original

38. “No Occupation” in The Farmer’s Advocate & Home Journal, June 10, 1910.

39. See Carol Lee Bacchi, Liberation Deferred? The Ideas Of The English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), p. 124.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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