The term “pioneer” lends itself to images of men toiling in the fields, but ethnically and racially diverse female pioneers played an important role in the development of the province of Saskatchewan. Aboriginal women built farms and settlements alongside both Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian men in the early settlement period. As more Euro-Canadians immigrated from eastern and central Canada, the British Isles, the United States and Europe, “civilized” White women displaced Aboriginal women as preferred marriage partners for White men.
Although women were indispensable in building communities, they were often disadvantaged by their gender. Women were attracted to western Canada by the cheap land but government officials felt that women were not effective farmers. Unlike the United States, where single women and female heads of households could claim the 160-acre lots, the Canadian government, under the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, barred women from holding the $10 homesteads offered to men. Only widows or deserted women with dependent children were accepted, and the clause was interpreted narrowly so as to limit the number of female homesteaders. The majority of female immigrants thereby came to Saskatchewan not as landowners in their own right, but as the wives, daughters or sisters of male agriculturalists. Others came independently to take advantage of employment opportunities, generally in female-appropriate occupations as domestic servants, teachers, nurses, seamstresses and waitresses.
Immigrants to Saskatchewan often found themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. While life in Saskatchewan often offered women more freedom and opportunities than they had previously enjoyed, most were unprepared for the hardships they faced. Many came from developed areas, sometimes equipped with modern amenities, where they were in close contact with neighbours and friends. Such women were usually ill prepared for the isolation and daily toil of frontier life. Those who came from upper- or middle-class homes, or who had spent the majority of their working lives in factories, were frequently not equipped with the domestic skills necessary to manage their new homes. Many women, especially those on homesteads whose closest neighbours were miles away, found the lack of social contact unbearable.
Farm women, who “hauled the double-load” of both domestic and agricultural duties, faced unique challenges. They cared for children and home, tended chickens, cows and gardens, and worked in the fields when necessary. The cash that female pioneers earned from selling excess butter, eggs and produce was often essential to the family income, but, in spite of their contributions, they were unable to claim an equal share in the farm and its products. In Saskatchewan, this injustice resulted in a push for equal rights in the form of campaigns for suffrage, homesteads for women and parental rights, as well as lobbies for health care, education and other community programs. Saskatchewan women both broke the land and broke ground in other areas, and, in part, the traditions of equality and social services in our province are rooted in the female pioneer experience.