By: Ann Leger-Anderson
When John Hawkes noted in 1924 that women had made immeasurable contributions to the making of the province, he implicitly privileged the newcomers of favoured ethnicity, namely British Canadians.1 Writing from the vantage point of 2004, the story is far more complex: many newcomers then looked upon as inferior are now a part of the provincial story; Aboriginals, long marginalized, are now claiming their rightful place; and new immigrants are present. This essay primarily discusses the dominant newcomer women of the 20th century.2
In 1870, when the future Saskatchewan became part of the newly established North-West Territories, its women were Aboriginal. Some were Métis—women of mixed blood who were part of fur-trade history. Others soon arrived, such as Red River Métis no longer comfortable in the new province of Manitoba. The vast majority, however, were full-blooded Indians, often Cree, who followed traditional ways. By the early 20th century, newcomers—who had originally been a mere trickle—overshadowed Aboriginals. Perhaps the first was a missionary wife, Mrs. Robert Hunt, who accompanied her husband to a new Anglican outpost, Stanley Mission, in the mid-1850s. In 1860 three Grey Nuns (Sisters of Charity) arrived at Ile-à-la-Crosse to assist the work of the Oblate priests. Other women with missionary objectives followed, teaching and providing medical care. If Roman Catholic, they were usually members of religious orders; but some came as laywomen—Onésime Dorval, for example. If Protestant, women likely came, as had Mrs. Hunt, as half a missionary team led by a minister husband. Some were single women, however, like Presbyterian Lucy Baker, who spent her life in the Prince Albert area. Among others was perhaps the first female medical doctor in what was to become Saskatchewan: Elizabeth Matheson. She arrived in Onion Lake in 1892 with her Anglican missionary priest husband, who demanded she finish her medical training to better minister to the needs of Aboriginals. Women also served as staff members of the schools that sought to teach White ways, an effort then regarded as worthy. They were usually in a subordinate role, the school being under direct male authority; a rare exception was Presbyterian Catherine Gillespie (later Motherwell), who was principal of the File Hills boarding school from 1901 to 1908, in spite of opposition from some government officials.
Not all late-19th-century newcomers had missionary intentions. Some undertook commonly expected—and demanding—auxiliary roles as paid helpmates of men, often doing laundry work or providing food and board. They might serve as domestic servants in early newcomer homes. Some followed other occupations. Prostitutes, for example, were a mixed lot that included Aboriginals; the ones partially visible in the pages of history tended to be newcomers, and in the territorial decades were likely to be tolerated, so long as they remained in special areas. There were other sorts, too, like the notorious Mrs. Habourg (there are variant spellings), whose Moose Jaw restaurant was a front for peddling the whisky that she ingeniously smuggled in.
Other Victorians who arrived are suggestive of the female diversity in the territorial era, and sometimes of the opportunities occasionally present. Maritimer Catherine Simpson Hayes, for example, was a woman of many talents who led a double life. In 1879 she arrived in the Prince Albert area; after a failed marriage, she surfaced in Regina with two children and apparently portrayed herself as a widow, although her husband was actually farming in Ontario. Living in the territorial capital until 1900, she was soon a prominent figure in its cultural life, working as a journalist and author. She became the lover of Nicholas Flood Davin, owner and editor of the Regina Leader and the local printer; hidden behind her façade of Victorian respectability and her glorification of women’s sphere of domesticity (so strong that she never became a suffragist) were her two children by him. Another was Geraldine Moodie, a pioneering woman photographer who set up studios in Battleford, then Maple Creek, during the 1890s, undeterred by her growing family and the demands made upon the wife of a North-West Mounted Police officer. In early Saskatoon, Grace Fletcher became storekeeper, seller of buffalo bones, and owner of much real estate; her career as a successful businesswoman was perhaps impelled by an alcoholic husband.3
Occasionally girls left traces of their lives. May Clarke, for example, had come to early Regina with her English immigrant family. In 1887, when she was 13, her father sent her to work for Nicholas Davin; as a printer, the latter was in need of able workers and willing to stretch gender boundaries, and he taught her tasks usually reserved for males. Typical, though, was her being forced to quit when family obligations—her mother’s illness—demanded it. Many came and went, as for example, the bookish and impish Lucy Maud Montgomery. In summer 1890 she arrived in Prince Albert, a 16-year-old girl intending to live with her long-absent father and her stepmother; the latter, however, turned out to be jealous and demanding, and Lucy was glad to leave a year later. Her journal provides rare glimpses of the past: insights into the Prince Albert school life (including her teacher’s unwanted affections), and into the interests and outlook of a relatively privileged girl.
Most women and girls who came in the late 19th century (and somewhat later) have been lost to history.4 Sometimes they came alone, although they often had relatives nearby. Most often they came as members of family units, usually homesteader families, perhaps associated with a colonization project or bloc settlement. Besides British Canadians, females of many ethnicities settled: Hungarians, Scottish crofters, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danish, Romanians, Icelanders, and German-speaking peoples, including Mennonites. Different in religion were the women who were part of several Jewish agricultural settlements. At century’s end came Doukhobor women and girls, whose understanding of the Christian faith, including views of marriage and divorce, was at odds with the host society; British Canadians, misperceiving their labours, viewed them as victims of terrible male-imposed drudgery. Female Britishers came too, perhaps connected with distinctive settlements like Cannington Manor. Some came as part of emigration schemes undertaken to reduce the surplus female population. Present also were the French; Quebecois women in particular had a difficult time and found their immediate environs strange, primitive, and isolated.5
As the new century opened, female diversity increased. Among recently arrived newcomers were the wives and children of the men in the sheepskin coats, the people later called Ukrainians. Female and male alike were often seen in British Canadian eyes as inferior, with alien religion, customs, and lifestyles, including marriage of young girls, female field labour, and male violence (which worsened with heavy drinking). Ukrainian wives and mothers (as was usually the case with non-Anglo immigrant groups) were likely to feel caught between old and new worlds, bound to home and old country language, expected to uphold ethno-cultural traditions, yet perhaps derided by their own children adapting to new ways. After the 1905 replacement of Clifford Sifton with Frank Oliver as Minister of the Interior, American farmers and their families became favoured—when White. Blacks were deemed undesirable: yet some arrived, mainly from Oklahoma. Among those who came in early 1910 and subsequently developed a farming community in Eldon district was the Mayes family, whose matriarch, Hattie Mayes, became the backbone of her community and church, her influence illustrating the informal power women of diverse sorts could wield.
In the late 19th or early 20th century, newcomer females were seen, when noticed at all, as wives, mothers and homemakers, their triform role central to the agricultural economy that Ottawa deemed the prairie destiny. Women were helpmates, essential to the agrarian enterprise: such was suggested by promotional literature, travel accounts, eulogies, editorials, even women themselves. Only marriage could end the plight of the bachelor homesteader: the woman could then share the burden of work, give birth to the children who would soon become contributing, productive family members, and make the house a home. Wife, mother, homemaker, then, gave the male a stake in making his enterprise successful. Men themselves sometimes sought wives in newspaper letters or ads. “Getting a mate” was a theme in appeals directed towards women: Come west, fill a badly needed job like teacher or domestic servant, then find a marriage partner, thereby making an even greater contribution to development. Finding mates (or jobs, or both) was also a leitmotif of British women who sought a solution to the surplus female population at home. By the eve of World War I, however, Saskatchewan’s gender imbalance had ceased to be a major problem.6
Only rarely acceptable was woman as farmer; women’s field work was itself problematic, and British Canadians frowned upon its presence among some newcomers.7 “Woman as farmer” was culturally deviant, acceptable only in exceptional circumstances: in fact, the 1911 census listed only 12% of women in Saskatchewan’s paid labour force as general farmers; mainly 25- to 64-year-olds, they were most often widows who had taken over the farm after the husband’s death and were likely assisted by their children. Hardly any women were bona fide homesteaders. Married women, of course, could not claim homesteads, and the 1872 Dominion Lands Act prohibited acquisition by single women. Only under stringent conditions were women, usually widows with dependents who presumably would handle heavy outside farm work, allowed to file for a homestead. This law came under attack, and an English immigrant-turned-farmer who had settled in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Georgina Binnie-Clark, became the major spokeswoman advocating its amendment. Ineligible herself, she had been forced to buy land, and struggled under what she condemned as undue financial burdens. She carried her case to the media and to Ottawa, and homesteads for women turned into a petition-signing crusade: there were over 11,000 signatures when presented to the government in 1913.8
For the vast majority of women and girls, owning a farm was doubtless inconceivable under any circumstances: their lives were lived as daughters, then as wives, mothers, and homemakers on farms and homesteads. Their conditions were often hard, their plight sometimes noted. Initial settlement was of course difficult because of primitive isolated conditions; it was especially so for the newcomer minority from urban backgrounds, unaccustomed to the unrelenting hard work that was the lot of farm women and girls. Subsequently, farms often remained remote from services, with health care being perhaps the female’s greatest concern, given her responsibility for family well-being and her frequent pregnancies. As well, farm homes were likely small, poorly constructed places with few, if any, amenities. Making the house a home was the woman’s domain—a difficult task, especially when available cash generally went into the farm operation. Even if the image of drudge may sometimes be overdrawn, hard work never let up. In fact, women’s unpaid labour, so often overlooked, was crucial because it was their responsibility to keep husband and children fed, clothed, sheltered, and healthy. Farmwomen’s work usually included such tasks as upkeep of a garden, caring for poultry, and processing of foodstuffs. The stereotypical image of a food-laden farmhouse table, however, hides a not uncommon reality on the prairies: poor limited diets. The woman might also keep the farm accounts, and bring in supplementary income to help keep the farm afloat by selling surplus eggs, milk, or butter. Typically, farm women made do and provided what they could of necessities and amenities.
This picture is a general one, and factors such as ethnicity, class, location, immediate circumstances, family expectations, individual traits, and luck affected actualities. The similarities in women’s responsibilities, the commonality of women’s tasks, the usual conviction that women’s proper role was wife, mother and homemaker are striking, however, and sometimes raise questions about the existence of a female frontier, or more generally a female culture. To answer them is difficult given that the above-listed factors—especially class, ethnicity, and location—might divide women. Yet another consideration was the pervasive conviction that woman’s place was subordinate, that the male had certain obligations to protect and to be the breadwinner, that the female was incapable of assuming certain obligations of the man’s world. There were, though, many variations on these basic themes, and some were informed by a far more denigrating view of women than others. Even so, the sense of male dominance was pervasive, and the double standard with its apotheosis of female sexual purity and acceptance of male waywardness held sway.
Such views were, of course, also pervasive in urban centres where a small minority of newcomer females lived.9 Nevertheless, the rapidly growing cities and larger towns, in contrast to the rural areas, provided more options: lives there were often easier, more exciting, and more varied. Young, old, middle-aged, of favoured ethnicity or not, class-privileged or not, females often felt the pull of the towns and cities. Important for many were employment opportunities, circumscribed as they were.10 The typical female wage earner was a young single woman: a newly wedded female normally left the work force, likely to return only if required by economic necessity, perhaps widowhood or an incapacitated husband. Perceived as temporary workers and paid less than men, females were also regarded as fit workers only in certain jobs. Other factors also determined what jobs were open to females: class, ethnicity, and demand. Rare in agrarian Saskatchewan were factory jobs, then the preferred employment among unskilled women. Present was the still common opposition to female workers in industrial jobs; available, however, was domestic service, the traditional mainstay. Only a few were elite positions, like those held by English/British Canadians at Regina’s Government House. Far more likely were jobs in urban homes, from middling to stately; and such positions were greatly preferable to employment in rural homes, where actual need was greatest. Recruitment schemes, targeting English domestic help, brought few: the “servant problem,” urban and rural, was a concern well into the 20th century.
The rapidly developing economy of early 20th-century urban Saskatchewan provided a range of female jobs. Among them were telephone operators, women having been deemed more polite and less critical of low wages than males. Office jobs multiplied in government agencies, insurance and real estate operations, and mail order operations (like Regina’s two huge ones, Simpson’s and Eaton’s): unlikely to demand high pay or authority, females were welcome in white-collar jobs of varying skill levels. Salesclerks were readily employed, often in department stores or the new dime stores. Urban centres, large and small, needed hotel and restaurant workers.11 A few women were self-employed, even entrepreneurial, most likely running a small confectionery store or a boarding house; but there were others too, such as “Lady Brokers” and Saskatoon Nursery proprietor Mrs. E. Marriott.12 Expanding government functions also might create positions, as in the case of Ethel MacLachlan, appointed Superintendent of Neglected and Dependent Children, and soon thereafter becoming the first Juvenile Court Judge in Saskatchewan, in 1917.
Some moved into the “female professions,” which compared to the male professions were less prestigious, lower in pay, and characterized by little control or authority. Newest was nursing, most likely private duty work after training (and working) in the nursing schools affiliated with the new hospitals. The premier female profession, however, remained teaching, rural and urban. Present even in early territorial days, working perhaps in makeshift private schools, female teachers became ubiquitous, especially the elementary school teacher. Most school marms were rural, but women were likely to prefer an urban school because working and living conditions were better (even though the pay was about what the school janitor received). The new urban collegiates provided occasional jobs in prewar Saskatchewan, and some dedicated spinster teachers remained there for decades. E. Don Cathro, for example, a Queen’s graduate, was already teaching in Regina when the new collegiate opened; she moved there in 1909, and taught English until her retirement in 1935.13 Women religious, of course, were the backbone of nursing and basic teaching for the Roman Catholic population.
Whether in these or other jobs, who did what was affected by class and ethnicity, as well as by a closely associated factor: education. Most newcomers did regard basic schooling as appropriate for girls; it was, nevertheless, usually subordinate to family needs and obligations. Some females, most often affluent English-speaking girls, secured secondary education, perhaps in a same-sex religiously affiliated school14 or small tax-supported facilities, or, by the eve of World War I, collegiate institutes that provided traditional academic instruction, complete with Latin as well as business and commercial subjects. A few females went to the new University of Saskatchewan, where classes were first held in 1909. By then, regardless of level, household science was frequently lauded as the best education for girls and young women—a posture indicative of the ongoing fear that education, especially advanced education, undermined home and family. At the new university, only in 1928 did a School of Household Science open.
What females could or could not do, what they could or could not study, was partially governed by custom, practice, and expectations. All, however, stood equal (or rather unequal) before the law. Married women’s position, especially, was inferior, although the traditional principle of coverture had been modified. In the territorial era, for example, married women had limited property and contractual rights, which were carried over after 1905 but were significant mainly for a few urban women. Of especial importance to farmwomen, the newcomer majority, was the absence of any traditional dower right, a loss dating back to the Territories Real Property Act of 1886 (subsequent legislation did not fully redress difficulties). Rural or urban, husbands were legally dominant. Although some modification occurred, women had limited legal rights, even over the children; the concept of marital rape was nonexistent; legal divorce was rare and costly—and stigmatized the woman; and deserted wives had little recourse. Single women had more rights, and property-owning single women (including widows) acquired the right to vote locally before married women did. Single or married, women could not vote in provincial or federal elections15 (see legal rights of women).
Limited rights and subordinate position notwithstanding, women were essential to the newcomer settlement process in what became Saskatchewan. Crucial were their roles not only as wives, mothers and homemakers, but also as participants in the paid labour force. They made other contributions to newcomer development, usually as a result of seeking to replicate the world they had left behind or to ameliorate conditions. These varied roles and contributions interacted in complex ways, and sometimes led to tensions among different sorts of women. To re-establish religious institutions, and to influence society through them, was important for many newcomer women.16 Although Jews and other non-Christians were among the newcomers, Christians (of many denominations) predominated, and the female Christian was often seen as having a special religious propensity; in any case, she was more likely to be a church member. Women might also look upon a local church as a focus of identity in an otherwise strange or isolated world, as a place for socializing, or as a pleasant change of pace for special occasions. The religious community or personal devotions might provide crucial sources of solace and comfort in a world beset by danger and death. What contributions a woman was able to make towards furtherance of her religion in the larger community depended upon a denomination’s assessment of woman’s nature and duties.
Within Roman Catholicism women religious were subordinate to male priests but carried out important traditional functions, staffing hospitals, charitable institutions, and schools. Among the major Protestant denominations that formed the culturally dominant group—Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist—and were evangelical or had evangelical wings, women carved out a different sort of separate subordinate sphere of auxiliary work: besides Sunday School teaching, they were active in ladies’ aids and female missionary societies; found in urban and rural areas, they were major expressions of women’s religiosity, and the initial major women’s organizations. Although women’s work merely replicated what was already well established, the demands of a new, sparsely populated land sometimes led to tasks not usually seen as fit for women’s hands.17 Woman as preacher, however, was an unbreachable barrier, and Protestant women had no direct say in the general governance of their denominations. Another practice also signalled women’s subordinate status: until the late 20th century, a woman would likely join her husband’s denomination if different from hers.18
Women also had been moving beyond denominational confines, establishing a wide range of organizations, largely urban-based. Through them women contributed to community development, assisted others, enlarged their own rights, pursued interests, and sometimes influenced policy formulation. Members tended to be British Canadian, more affluent, better educated, married women. They joined for many reasons: some serious, like contributing to the community, pursuing interests, or developing leadership skills; and some less so, like looking for a rationale for leaving the house, an opportunity to socialize, or a means of social climbing. For a select group, organizational work was a substitute career, welcome at a time when well-to-do married women rarely worked outside the home.
The first major organizations that breached denominational confines represented voices of evangelical Protestant womanhood, and had among their objectives improvement of the female lot: Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Both dated back to the 1870s in Canada, the former having American roots, the latter English. The WCTU spread rapidly in prewar Saskatchewan, becoming the largest of women’s organizations; its reformist enthusiasms were many, and it was frequently critical of the impact of the status quo upon women and families. The YWCA emerged as women sought to provide protected environments for young women pouring into the burgeoning cities to work or study; the first branch was established in Moose Jaw in 1907. Earlier, in 1895, a Local Council of Women was founded in Regina. Initially it was little more than an umbrella group of women’s religious auxiliaries, but its objective was the establishment of a local hospital, and it later dealt with numerous issues, including women-related ones. Several additional councils emerged during World War I, and a provincial body was formed.
Other organizations developed, among which were professionally oriented ones like the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association (1917) and the Saskatoon Women Teachers’ Association (1918). Cultural interests found expression in the Women’s Musical Clubs of Regina (1907) and Saskatoon (1912), or the Women’s Educational Society associated with Regina College. University graduates formed the University Women’s Clubs of Regina (1915) and Saskatoon (1918), soon affiliated with the Canadian Federation of University Women. Women who sought to promote Canadian and imperial identity joined the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire, present from 1909; women of other national identities also formed organizations; still other associations provided important auxiliary assistance to institutions like the new hospitals. These—and other—women’s organizations were largely based in cities and towns. The new province, however, was primarily agricultural: of great importance, therefore, were two women’s organizations that sought to ameliorate the harsh conditions of life on farms and homesteads, and in rural communities. Largely attracting English-speaking newcomers, they rapidly developed throughout the province and numerous women belonged to both. In 1911 the Homemakers’ Clubs of Saskatchewan were founded, patterned after the Women’s Institutes that first emerged in mid-1890s Ontario (see Homemakers’ Clubs and the Women’s Institutes); and in 1914 came a uniquely Saskatchewan contribution, the more radically oriented Women Grain Growers, which was open only to bona fide farm women (see organized farm women in the WGG, the UFC, the SFU, and the NFU).
Rural or urban, women’s organizations in Saskatchewan rapidly grew during the 1910s; many of them had a feminist cast, at least of a maternal sort that saw in the efforts to secure an enlarged sphere for women an expression of woman’s mothering instinct. Some women also began to focus upon the organizational needs of youth, especially girls, and embraced two new organizations that quickly spread to Saskatchewan: Girl Guides (1910) and Canadian Girls in Training, present by 1918. Specifically for rural youth were the Girls and Boys Clubs, established in 1918 (later, 4-H Clubs).
By the eve of World War I, the lives of more affluent urban girls and women followed familiar Edwardian patterns. Whether they were significantly freer than “back east” is difficult to ascertain, living as they did within the social setting that had developed and that many found enjoyable. Annie Brown, for example, a Lieutenant-Governor’s wife, apparently quite liked the social whirl of Government House and her many organizational involvements; as well, her life demonstrated how the new land provided opportunities for social mobility. Most urban females were not so comfortably off, and some lived difficult lives. For example, the girls and women of East End Regina, filled with continental European immigrants living in cramped unsanitary conditions, had limited options; and yet, some among them had comparatively unheard-of opportunities. The vast female majority lived on farms and homesteads, and few had the advantages of a Catherine Gillespie Motherwell, able to shift back and forth from a comfortable farm home to affluent circles of the capital city. Their lives were sharply different—even more so for the many girls and women who differed in language, expectations, and lifestyle from the host society. Even the comfortably off (in relative terms) had few amenities, and neither they nor most urban dwellers were likely to engage in a recently expanded sphere of female activity—sports: tennis, golf, women’s hockey, and basketball were enjoyed only by the few19 (see women in sports).
An increasing number, though a minority, were dissatisfied with their position in Saskatchewan. Already organizationally active, they were concluding that their participation allowed at best limited opportunity to enhance communities, shape development, or influence policies and practices: women, therefore, needed a direct voice in the body politic; they needed the vote. A short-lived campaign, mainly a massive petition-signing effort that galvanized many heretofore passive women, resulted in victory, and Saskatchewan became the second province to grant the vote, in March 1916 (see woman suffrage). As befitted an overwhelmingly agricultural province, the movement was primarily agrarian; the WGG provided crucial leadership and worked in conjunction with the WCTU, with its base in urban centres; of especial importance in this movement was Violet McNaughton. More and more women endorsed suffrage, doing so for many reasons. Perhaps above all, it was seen as a tool for reform, especially prohibition, but also for other reforms that would uplift community and province. It was a way for women to advance their own interests, to redress their loss of dower law rights and secure homestead rights. As well, making females full citizens was a timely democratic reform. Males, however, were the voters and legislators, the power holders. After several years of stonewalling, the Liberal government decided the time had come: women, they concluded, had shown they wanted the vote. Enfranchisement had become a sign of progress: Saskatchewan now stood for progress.20
By March 1916, women were busily engaged in supporting the war effort, their activities perhaps a factor making female enfranchisement more palatable. Their contributions were usually made through urban and rural organizations, the IODE playing a significant leadership role.21 In fact, the growth of women’s organizations during the war years is partially attributable to women’s determination to participate in the war effort. Their many activities included raising funds for diverse projects such as ambulances, hospitals, and relief efforts; they also knit, made bandages, assembled soldiers’ comforts, collected reading materials, and conserved food and clothing. Aboriginal women on reserves also contributed, their efforts soon forgotten. Although occasional women served as military nurses, the average English-speaking woman worked on the home front, her patriotic fervour sometimes reaching fever pitch, and contributed to increased Canadianizing efforts, suspicions about enemy aliens, and the drive for English-only schools. The war’s end was marked by another catastrophe: the flu pandemic; throughout the province women worked to alleviate suffering however they could. Then came the 1920s, a decade of building upon the formative years that had brought into being the third most populous province in the Dominion.
The more fervent suffrage supporters, who foresaw a new era of women’s activism, were soon disappointed. Women interested in politics tended to do little more than undertake auxiliary work in the extensive network of women’s Liberal and Conservative associations that emerged. The experiences of the first woman MLA, Sarah Ramsland (Pelly constituency) are instructive, given the hostile opposition to her candidacy. In 1919 she won a widow’s seat in a by-election, then won again in the 1921 election, but only by a plurality of votes cast by a badly divided electorate choosing among four candidates; and in 1925 she lost a two-way race to the candidate who had come in last in 1921. Locally, a few women were elected to school boards, more often public than high school, and some were appointed to library boards. How significant were the women’s efforts to encourage their sisters to run, like those of Regina’s Local Council of Women, is difficult to determine. As for the hope—and fear—of women voting as an influential bloc, that turned out to be a myth. Perhaps related, little redress occurred of still unequal legal rights; and many of the most active former suffragists, who also wore a WCTU hat, were appalled when Prohibition ended. As for the Persons’ Case decision of 1929, the result of the work of the Alberta Five, Saskatchewan women displayed moderate interest at best; some, in fact, saw the Senate as an undemocratic, unelected body that should be abolished.
The (still small) urban spearhead did continue to provide more options and opportunities for women than did rural Saskatchewan, especially during the boom years of the late 1920s. As before, a range of jobs existed, and well-educated single women still occasionally found career niches in a male-dominated world. Dr. Francis McGill, for example, had recently launched what was to be a lengthy career in pathology, including forensic pathology. Dr. Lillian Chase, a student of Banting’s, began to practice in Regina in 1925, becoming head of the Regina General Hospital medical staff in 1932. Edith Rowles Simpson headed the School of Household Science, finally established in 1928 at the University of Saskatchewan. Occasional women engaged in pioneering work, as did Catherine Sheldon–Williams when she single-handedly began the Outpost Correspondence School in 1926.
Still typical was the young single female worker who left the work force after marriage: wife, mother, homemaker—these roles were still privileged. Job paths were familiar, including white-collar positions, nursing, sales jobs, restaurant and hotel work, domestic service, and teaching (still more rural than urban). The plight of women workers did receive some attention, but little improvement.22 In 1919 a Minimum Wage Board had been established, its aim to determine wages, hours, and conditions of labour. Unfortunately it did not cover most employed females, and its authority was limited. Little could be done, for example, to raise wages that at the beginning of the decade generally fell below a living wage, calculated at $15. By the mid-1920s Employed Girls Councils were found in Regina and Moose Jaw, their aim to discuss problems and help the workers learn about existing legislation. In Regina, the Local Council of Women was involved, its committee convenor, Mabel Hanway, dedicated to improving conditions of women workers and also active with the Employed Girls’ Councils. The Women’s Labour League was also present, its concerns partially focused upon female workers.
Organizations remained active, and additional ones were established. Among them was the professionally oriented Canadian Women’s Press Club (Saskatoon and Regina). Culturally focused ones included the Women Artists’ Association that spread provincially by the late 1920s, and the Canadian Daughters’ League in Regina (1927) and Moose Jaw (1930); as well, the important Arts and Letters Committee of Regina’s Local Council of Women was founded. Women were also involved in fledgling cultural groups promoting drama, for example Louise Olson in Saskatoon. The decade saw organizational efforts among women of non-dominant ethno-cultural roots. Some local affiliates of national bodies were established: for example, a Regina branch of the Catholic Women’s League (1919) and a Saskatoon branch of the National Council of Jewish Women (mid-1920s). In Saskatoon there emerged in 1926 what was to become a national organization with its origins in the province: the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. In agrarian Saskatchewan the Homemakers’ Clubs and WGG (as well as its post-1926 successor, the women’s section of the United Farmers of Canada) remained active and sought extensive betterment of conditions for women, their families, and local communities.
As for females in rural and farm areas, improvements were relative.23 Life was, of course, extremely primitive in remote places still being settled; but in already established districts, it eased for some women—at least in certain respects. Mechanization began to ease harvest time burdens because where combines were used, women no longer had to feed large threshing crews. Links with the outside world often increased, English-speaking females benefiting most; telephones in rural homes became more plentiful; automobile ownership rapidly increased; and battery radio sets became popular. How “gendered” was the use of autos and radios is an interesting question: Who decided where to drive, and when? Who drove? Who listened to what programs? Whatever the answers, women themselves might prefer links to the outside world over spending limited funds on home improvements. Even when money was available, however, women might do without. The end result was a rural Saskatchewan dotted with cramped, poorly constructed homes without plumbing, running water, electricity, or central heating. Another facet of some farm women’s lives, market-oriented production outside the wheat economy, received attention with the WGG’s promotion of the Egg and Poultry Pool in 1926. A Saskatchewan farm woman, the widowed Isabelle Bryce, of Arcola, became the first woman to win a prize at the 1924 International Livestock Exposition at Chicago, for her Clydesdales.
For most women, rural or urban, life revolved around family. Even though the independent young woman was admired in the media, the assumption remained that she would settle down, becoming the 1920s version of the wife/mother/homemaker: modern and efficient, making use of scientific and business expertise. That model, of course, was remote from most female lives in Saskatchewan, and what impact it had is difficult to determine. Certainly, metropolitan currents were felt, such as for example the growing interest in birth control; even its advocates, however, saw it appropriately used only by married women. Since birth control was illegal, its use was largely subterranean,24 but sometimes the topic received a public airing: the late 1920s saw a flurry of interest (continuing into the early 1930s); some discussion occurred in newspapers; and the topic became a lively one at United Farmers of Canada conventions, both at the women’s section and general conventions. Among those who endorsed legalization were Zoe Haight, Violet McNaughton, and Sophia Dixon. Support diminished as religious, especially Roman Catholic, opposition surfaced. Divorce, too, became more common and now attainable in the provincial court system; but grounds were largely unchanged, and the stigma remained great.25 Common were efforts to make women better homemakers by disseminating up-to-date household science information, and to improve upon motherhood. Included were government programs that provided minimal assistance to needy married women, and mothers’ allowances that targeted indigent widows and dependent children.26 Initial efforts to reduce the high infant and maternal mortality rates also expanded. Beginning in 1919–20, maternity grants assisted poor women who were remote from doctors, and by 1929–30 help was given to 1,112 mothers.27
As the 1920s decade neared its end, many Saskatchewan women of diverse backgrounds doubtless felt caught between old and new: modern ways of carrying out women’s age-old roles vied with traditional ones, and new models beckoned. Cultural transformation emanating from metropolitan centres threatened traditional values, leading for example the still influential WCTU to feel at increasing odds with society. Often a worry for mothers was the movies: enticing, yet sometimes threatening—a danger to their children. Girl Guides and the CGIT provided welcome counter-influences. Concern about children had also brought into being the new Home and School Associations, with Grace Blue as a leading advocate. Present also was conflict over the new province’s future as ethno-cultural tensions in polyglot Saskatchewan boiled over and women were caught up in the tensions: some were voices of the new, some of the old, seeking to keep the province British, perhaps supporting efforts like the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf, the Anglican Sunday School Caravan Mission led by Eva Hasell, or the recruitment of British domestic servants. Then, in the latter 1920s came the Ku Klux Klan; women’s involvement in it is an interesting question. Preoccupied with diverse cultural issues and the demands of daily life, one wonders whether a breakthrough like Ethel Calderwood’s victory at the 1928 Olympics was a welcome diversion or a non-event for most women. As for sports generally, some younger urban women did continue their interest; the 1920s saw the spread of women’s curling teams, and by decade’s end an annual bonspiel had been established.
Cultural questions, and many other issues, took a back seat in the 1930s as economic survival became paramount. In that decade of making do, women were critical players. Urban women suffered—as wives, mothers, homemakers, and wage earners28—especially those already living in straitened circumstances.29 Most still lived on farms, likely caught up in the vicissitudes of the wheat economy that dominated agricultural Saskatchewan, at the mercy of nature and international markets. Some left the province; others headed to new settlement areas where they attempted to start from scratch; still others tried their luck in urban centres. Most remained, even where conditions were at their worst in southern Saskatchewan, and experienced terrible burdens psychologically and materially. Impoverishment became widespread, and women struggled to maintain home and family. They made do with used clothing, charity food, closure or reduction of services, and even more inadequate health care; ironically, though, infant and maternal mortality rates lessened.30 Usually hidden, moreover, are the stories of violence and abuse.
More women became politically active, participating in demonstrations or, more likely, joining political movements of leftist orientation. The movement with a future turned out to be the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, founded in 1932 and in which women’s roles were circumscribed by conventional attitudes. Twenty or so women (out of over 130 delegates) were present at the first national convention, in July 1933, when the Regina Manifesto was endorsed. In it women were given brief egalitarian lip service, but in practice were viewed as domestic creatures and auxiliary personnel. The need for able workers did occasionally provide new opportunities for Saskatchewan women: the “right-hand man” for leader George Williams, for example, was a woman, Georgina Mathers; an effective speaker like Louise Lucas, or a capable organizer like Elsie Gorius was welcomed; Sophia Dixon even became an early member of the CCF National Council. Occasional female candidates ran; they were usually welcome only if the CCF candidate had little chance of success, as Gertrude Telford discovered when she sought nomination in Pelly constituency31 (see women and politics, post-suffrage to the 1970s). Interestingly, a once-bright female light in the CCF who had been expelled became a Saskatchewan first: the first woman from the west to sit in the House of Commons. This was Dorise Nielsen, an English immigrant who had become radicalized during the 1930s; in 1940 she successfully ran as a United Progressive candidate in 1940 for North Battleford.
Women’s involvement in the political sphere also included occasional election to city councils. Helena B. Walker, the LCW endorsed candidate, won a seat on the Regina city council in 1932; in 1937 Ella Muzzy was elected in Prince Albert, serving until 1942. As for Regina, intra-gender conflicts abounded in politics. In 1932, for example, there had been a second woman candidate: Mabel Hanway, no longer welcome in the LCW, had stood as a labour candidate. In the late 1930s, after the LCW ceased to endorse candidates, a League of Women Voters affiliate was launched by the Regina Business and Professional Women; its apparent initial objective was support for city council candidates that were acceptable to the establishment. As for the familiar women’s organizations, they felt the impact of the Depression and suffered some membership decline, but remained active. Occasional new ones, largely branches of organizations headquartered elsewhere, were also established, in particular the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in Saskatoon (1930) and Regina (1933). As well, the aforementioned League of Women Voters emerged in Regina and lasted until the late 1950s.
There were occasional success stories for career-oriented women; admittedly they were rare, and usually emerged because of unusual circumstances. Of particular note was Ruth Switzer McGill, a 1932 University of Saskatchewan Law School graduate, whose prominent legal and business career was doubtless assisted by her association with her father, founder of the Debenture Company of Canada. Willing to endure the long hours and poor pay of Regina College, Hilda Neatby began her career as history professor in the mid-1930s. In Saskatoon Mabel Timlim was following an unusual path with her part-time studies and part-time teaching of economics at the University. Jean Murray began teaching there too, her salary paid by her father, the president. In 1936 in Moose Jaw, Lydia Gruchy became a Saskatchewan record-maker when she became the first woman to be ordained in a major denomination (the United Church). That career-oriented women faced obstacles and hostile receptions is certain, and occasionally discussion surfaces, as in the autobiography of another who established herself in 1930s, Dr. Phyllis L. Steele, one of a dozen women doctors in the province.32 Cultural endeavours continued to attract women, and one Saskatchewan product, Edna Jaques, gained national recognition: her poems, a celebration of ordinary daily life, were disdained by critics but beloved by average Canadians.
Before the Depression decade ended, war came again in September 1939. During the earlier anti-war movement, Saskatchewan women’s voices had been raised, some of whom like Sophia Dixon were involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (founded during World War I). Some refused to jettison deeply held pacifist views: Gertrude Telford, for example, who was rewarded with an annual visit from the RCMP. Most women endorsed the war effort, as in World War I, and worked to ensure women’s home front participation. They undertook tasks similar to those of 1914–18, and once again did so primarily through women’s organizations. Some also took over normally male jobs. Others went into war industries, factories making munitions, planes, and other war materials—often moving to central Canada. A few worked making munitions in Regina, at the former GM plant; still others joined the military when the three services opened their doors, serving in auxiliary positions and thereby freeing more men for combat duty. Most remained in Canada, but some were posted overseas in non-combatant positions. Occasionally women became prominent: Marion Graham, of Saskatoon, for example, one of the first women to enlist in the RCAF, became a squadron leader. The province also was home to the first woman of the First Nations to enlist in the army, Mary Greyeyes of the Muskeg reserve. Saskatchewan women made a name for themselves in other ways. Gladys Arnold, for example, who had started out as a secretary-turned-journalist at the Leader-Post from 1929 to 1935, became a passionate defender of the Free French. Joanne Bamford Fletcher got over 2,000 Dutch civilian prisoners out of Sumatra. On the lighter side, Saskatchewan produced about half of the fifty Canadian women who played in P.K. Wrigley’s All-American Girls’ Baseball League during the war years.
By war’s end, the CCF government was in power: elected in 1944, it was to remain for twenty years. Women had campaigned both for and against the CCF, and parties once again directed appeals to women voters that emphasized how proposed programs would help shore up women’s (family-oriented) concerns. In office, the CCF implemented numerous measures that impacted women as wives, mothers, and homemakers. It quickly established the Department of Social Welfare (November 1944), and subsequent changes to social welfare policies culminated in the Social Aid Act of 1959.33 Sometimes the government built upon existing programs, as when it moved quickly to provide free health care services to recipients of Mothers’ Allowances and their dependents, effective January 1945. Between 1945 and 1947, numerous changes were made to Acts affecting such matters as deserted wives and children. Health care for mothers and babies was a major concern. Infant and maternal mortality rates had already dropped considerably by 1944, and hospital births had risen from 55.5% by 1941 to 77.2% in 1945. In the early CCF years, controversy erupted over proposed implementation of nurse-midwives in remote areas: although several women did receive specialized training, the program remained limited in scope, and lay midwives were still used sometimes.
The introduction of medicare in 1962 further alleviated the burdens of costly health care, but women were split on the issue and on the manner of handling proposed changes. A few Regina women, in fact, spearheaded the formation of the “Keep Our Doctors” committees, which quickly spread. Numbers of women actively supported the legislation, including, of course, CCF women: Marjorie Cooper, CCF MLA, had introduced the bill and was a leading spokeswoman. Nurses themselves were divided, and the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association took no stand.34 Ultimately, women and their families benefited from the expansion of tax-funded health care; those in cities and larger towns enjoyed the greatest accessibility.
Other government policies also affected women: growth of the government bureaucracy, for example, created a range of female jobs, mostly clerical. Better professional opportunities arose as well: the great expansion of health care services meant that nurses and nurses’ aides were needed. The elaboration of social assistance measures provided some professional opportunities, as in the case of Mildred Battel, who became a prominent figure. She was a McGill graduate (1945), the first Saskatchewan woman to graduate as a professional social worker. Appointed assistant director of child welfare in the Department of Social Welfare in 1952, she became director two years later; she played an influential role in shaping policies and practices relating to child abuse, and also sought to get better treatment of, and respect for, unwed mothers and babies. Mary Rocan, who was a secretary to the Minimum Wage Board in the new Department of Labour, became assistant director of the Labour Standards Branch in the early 1950s; soon after the Liberal victory of 1964, she became founding Supervisor of the first Women’s Bureau. Women in the arts benefited from the establishment of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, sometimes as paid employees, often as recipients of support.
This expansion of opportunities, however, was limited, occurring in an environment in which women were usually still seen as rightly playing subordinate roles in a male-dominated world. Sex discrimination, in fact, was not mentioned in the 1947 Bill of Rights, the first general law in Canada that prohibited discrimination. The 1945 amendment of the 1930 Public Service Act did repeal the ban on employment of married women except in special circumstances, stating that there should be no discrimination on grounds of sex, race, or religion; even so, a married woman could be employed only in certain circumstances. As for the 1947 Public Service Act, it made no specific references to women, married or single.
The CCF can claim no responsibility for advancing women in politics. As for elective office, in 1944 only two CCF candidates ran, Beatrice Trew being the sole victor; the loser, Gladys Strum, was elected in the 1945 federal election and served one term (Louise Lucas, a likely winner, dropped out of the federal race because of terminal cancer). In 1952, Marjorie Cooper became an MLA, winning a Regina seat and staying in office for the remainder of the CCF government. She was, in fact, one of the few (now NDPers) who kept their seats in 1964, and she retired in 1967. She offered a woman’s perspective but, unlike Strum, who was a relatively outspoken feminist, her demeanour exuded 1950s stereotypes: feminine, soft-spoken, and family-oriented. Not all were satisfied with the near-absence of women candidates: Gertrude Telford, for example, who in 1959 expressed her displeasure with the CCF record and blamed both men and women.35
Well-established patterns of women’s political behaviour continued during the postwar era. Most preferred auxiliary work, and the likeliest place to find a woman elected office-holder was in local government. City councils did see a few more women members. Saskatoon elected its first female council member, Margaret Harris, in 1948; and Regina continued to have at least one female councillor, usually someone with a Council of Women connection, until 1955, after which no more were elected until 1967. In both cities, women candidates usually spoke of the housewife’s perspective and were still likely to be perceived in terms of mothers/wives/homemakers. Beginning at mid-century, voters in a few smaller cities began occasionally to elect women councillors. For most women home and family remained central, and this emphasis permeated the CCF era. It was seen, for example, in left-oriented organizations like the Housewives Consumers’ Association or the Saskatchewan Women’s Co-operative Guild (founded in 1940), as well as in Dorise Nielson’s New Worlds for Women, written in 1944 while still an MP (she had, like occasional others, also affirmed women’s right to work, married or single).
How that domestic life was lived did vary, as always, according to factors such as locale, class, and ethnicity. As well, the advent of television both reinforced and challenged conventional British-Canadian mores. Saskatchewan females, in general, followed patterns common elsewhere during the postwar era: more finished secondary or post-secondary studies; yet getting a husband was a major objective, and if “gotten,” the importance of ensuring his graduation could spawn an organization like the PHT (Putting Hubby Through) Club at the University of Saskatchewan. Larger families became the norm during these baby-boom years, and motherhood was privileged; yet, women were seen as increasingly in need of direction to properly carry out their roles, and family and child experts became more important. For those whose marriages were difficult, escape was rare: although divorce rates increased, especially in the immediate postwar era, divorce was still frowned upon (in 1946, 505 divorces occurred, the highest number up to that time).36
Perhaps not surprisingly, the numerous women’s organizations, urban and rural, long seen as an appropriate outlet for women, often remained attractive, still able to meet diverse needs. They were, however, in their Indian summer: after the war, membership in many bodies had increased, but in the course of the late 1950s and into the 1960s it tended to decline for many organizations. Even so, in 1960 the Star-Phoenix reported a list of over 150 groups in their Women’s Page files (exclusive of church and lodge circles, or Home and School Associations). Some organizations had undertaken invigorating new tasks: the Regina Council of Women, for example, turned its attention to the serious housing problem in postwar Regina; it long remained a major concern, and attracted capable activists like Jackie Hoag. Many organizations, however, simply ceased to attract new members as new interests arose, although service clubs did seem to thrive.
Women continued to play an important role in the era’s cultural developments, their interests often rooted in established organizational activities. Several arts centres opened: for example one in Regina Beach, in which Barbara Muir Barber (Mrs. Fred Barber) played a central role; she had long been active in the Women Artists’ Association and had served as convenor of the LCW (Regina) Arts and Letters Committee. In Regina the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery opened, its core the carefully husbanded (by the Regina Council of Women) collection of its namesake. Drama, music, and writing, with their many female supporters, grew; women were important not only on the new Saskatchewan Arts Board, as mentioned, but also on many community arts councils.
These were also decades when paid work enticed more women. Despite the fact that the glories of home, family, and children were being trumpeted, more women were joining the workforce, among them increasing numbers of married women with children old enough to be in school. Job opportunities in an agrarian province like Saskatchewan were, of course, limited; but they did exist—many, as noted, related to the expansion of the government bureaucracy. The traditional female profession, teaching, continued to provide jobs, demand outstripping supply as baby-boom children reached school age. In fact, the need for teachers led to gradual elimination of formal barriers to married women teachers. In some other jobs, too, marriage became less of a barrier to employment. Other opportunities arose in relatively professional areas: the expansion of library services, for example, created influential positions for women—married and single—like Marion Sherman, Francis Morrison, and Marjorie Dunlop. Occasionally other opportunities arose, sometimes in business. Most females who needed work, though, sought unskilled or semi-skilled jobs; the major departure from past practice was the de-emphasizing of domestic service in the immediate postwar period.
Rural and farm women still constituted the majority of females after the war; but their numbers were declining, and by the end of the CCF era farm women had become a minority.37 Rural or farm, the lives of girls and women were affected by many changes between 1944 and 1964. Beyond the provincial government’s control, of course, were trends resulting in fewer and larger farms; but the CCF had as a central concern rural life, establishing for example the Royal Commission on Agricultural and Rural Life, and its policies did impact female lives. Construction of better roads, for example, increased mobility: now it was easier to enjoy the amenities of a nearby urban centre, perhaps the “big city,” or to take an off-farm job. The massive rural electrification of the 1950s revolutionized the farm and the farmhouse itself, and “Penny Powers” was used to promote the use of electricity. Now electric stoves, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and deep freezers became a part of farm life (whether it reduced farm women’s labour or merely transformed it can be debated). However, farm homes frequently lagged behind urban homes in amenities, and many remained cramped, drafty places.38 Farm or rural, women remained the backbone of social life, and their norm was unsung service in women’s groups and auxiliary bodies.
By the mid-1960s a new era was beginning. Central was the resurgence of feminism during the decade, and its impact upon a new women’s organization is illustrative. When the recently established Voice of Women (VOW) arrived in Saskatchewan in 1961, it exemplified the traditional anti-war strain in women’s thinking, one that included solicitude for children and affirmation of women’s allegedly peaceful nature. Its immediate concerns were opposition to the military posturing of both sides in the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Within a few years, however, VOW had also taken up women’s rights issues and was among the organizations that presented briefs to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Responses to the recommendations of the subsequent report (1970) illustrated burgeoning feminist sentiments in many quarters. By the mid-1970s the new Advisory Council had Saskatchewan members, and within the province the Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women had been established. The pace of change, however, was too slow and the objectives too limited for many younger women who, often campus-based, had already established women’s liberation groups (see feminism: consciousness and activism since the 1960s and Women’s Movement, 1970–2004).
The battles of the late 1960s and the 1970s seem distant now, but they wrought significant changes in female lives. Several developments were dependent upon federal action: legalization of birth control (1968); initial liberalization of abortion laws (1968, with subsequent changes); and easement of divorce laws (1967–68). Nevertheless, how things worked out depended upon local circumstances. As well, provincial-level changes affected areas like employment, with stimulus coming from the Women’s Division (1964), later the Women’s Bureau (1966), housed in the Department of Labour (see Status of Women Office). Not until 1980 did significant changes begin to occur in the conventional understanding of married women’s property rights (see legal rights of women). What happened in Saskatchewan, it should be emphasized, was rarely distinctive; one exception was the 1972 formation of the Saskatoon Women’s Calendar Collective.
Women made a few breakthroughs in politics, but have remained under-represented. So far only two women have been city mayors: Ida Petterson, from 1970 to 1976, in Estevan; and M. Isabelle Butters, from 1976 to 1982, in Weyburn. On the provincial level, more women have become MLAs: since the early 1990s there have been approximately ten at any given time. In 1982 the newly elected Progressive Conservative government named the first women to Cabinet: Joan Duncan and Patricia Smith (see women and politics since the 1970s). As for women’s organizations, once a source of women’s influence (albeit limited), they have been overshadowed by complex economic, social, and cultural transformation. Membership fell in established organizations, urban and rural, as women took jobs, developed new interests and needs, or simply aged. Emergent organizations were likely to focus primarily upon interests of identifiable segments of women, for example: Aboriginal women’s groups, Immigrant, Refugee, and Visible Minority Women of Saskatchewan, Elizabeth Fry Society, or Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan. Although two-thirds of females are now classified as urban, Saskatchewan remains the most rural of the prairie provinces. Remaining farm women still work hard, and many work off-farm to help keep the farm intact; a growing minority are farm operators themselves (see women and agriculture). Whether farm or rural, non-urban women find that services are unevenly distributed: the lioness’s share is to be found in the provincial cities.
Women who are in the paid workforce, a growing percentage, continue to congregate in certain work categories, with perhaps fewer opportunities in face of downsizing and rationalization of work. Nevertheless, women are better represented than previously in professional categories such as law and medicine. As for business, about one-third of businesses are woman-owned and -operated (sometimes with a male partner), and special assistance programs are available. The businesses, though, are often small ones, and many doubtless help to keep the family farm afloat. Even now, there are relatively few female entrepreneurs like Jackie Hoag, founder of Old Fashion Foods forty years ago. For many women life is difficult, and problems are still compounded by class and ethnicity. Aboriginal women face the most risks, but others are vulnerable, too. Women have borne the brunt of minimum wages lagging behind inflation, and of part-time work with its limited benefits and higher risks. Women and children rely most heavily on food banks, and, cutting across class and ethnic lines, women face increased hours of work: there is less time for family life, despite a growing emphasis upon its importance, for leisure, or for what remains of women’s organizations.