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Canadian Women Essay Essay

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Ann Gossage Department of History McGiII University, Montreal March,1996

A Thesis submitted to the Facult) of Graduate Studies and Research ln partial fulfilment of the requiremern of the degree of Master of Arts

(c) copyright Ann Gossage, 1996


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ISBN 0-612-19896-0


Shortened Title: Between the lines: Women in Canadian novels of the 1930s

ABSTRACT This thesis examines the role of Canadian women as presented in English language novels of the 1930s written by women authors. Within the context of the Great Depression it focuses on issues that are central to women's daily lives such as work, love, marriage and motherhood. lt also isolates recurring themes in the nove!s and attempts to understand the authors' messages within their social context. Social reform. politics and ge!1der relationships are among the subjects explored.

RESUME Cette thèse examine le rôle des femmes canadiennes telles que représentées par les auteurs féminins des romans de langue anglaise des années 1930. Elle se concentre, dans le contexte de la grande dépression, sur les préoccupations qui sont qu centre la vie quotidienne des femmes: le travail, l'amour, le mariage et la maternité. On a isolé les thèmes qui reviennent fréquerrlll,oot dans les romans et essayé de comprendre les messages des auteurs en tenant compte du contexte social. La réforme sociale, la politique et les relations homme-femmes font partie des sujets explorés.


ACKNOWlEDGEMENTS 1would like to thank the following people: Professor Andrée Lévesque for her guidance and forbearance; the inter-library loans staff whose services 1used to the point of abuse; Peter Gossage for his editorial suggestions on structure and style. and for "Between the Unes"; Mary Bleho for the abstraet translation: Joan Kearvell for her help with printing; Audrey Gossage. Mary Bleho and Helene Bleho for babysitting Michael 50 that 1 could work on this thesis: and Mike Bleho for his constant encouragement and support.



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CHAPTER V: WOMEN. SOCIETY AND POLITICS ...........•........ 94 SOCIAL REFORM 94 SEING ''WELL-BORN'' 97 WEALTH AND CLASS 99 EUGENIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL REFORM 102 ETHNIC INTOLERANCE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . • . . . . . . . . .. 107 COUNTRY VERSUS CITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 111 DEPRESSION POLITICS ......................•........ 118 RADICAL ALTERNATIVES 119 GENDER POLITICS 124 CON CLUSI ON ..............................•...•........ 135 APPENDIX: STORY SUMMARIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . • . . . • • • .. 137 BIBLIOGRAPHY .................................••.••••.• 146

INTRODUCTION Authors and historians tend to charaeterize the decade of the Great Depression as a decade manquée. The idea that the 1930s seem to mark a hait to the progress of the 1920s is expressed, as historian Michiel Hom has pointed out, in Depression titles such as ''ten lost years" and ''the winter years", Hom sees the "Bennett Buggy" as the best symbol of the rollinq back of certain advances in Canadian society; unable to afford fuel, people hitched their horses to their automobiles and named the hybrid after Prime Minister Bennett.' For Canadian women this rollback was significant. Althouqh by the 1930s they had won the right to vote in federal elections, to serve in both houses of the Canadian parliament, and had entered the paid workforce in increasing numbers since World War l, their freedom to operate in the "public sphere" did not go unchallenged. With the economic downtum of the 1930s, the sense that the best place for women was in the home was reaffirmed. One author and social commentator, Gwethalyn Graham, in an article entitled. "Women, Are They Human?", argues that the 1930s witnessed a backlash against wornen's individual rights. She links this backlash to the economic pressures of the Depression, and to psychoanalytic theories which understand a woman's bioloqy, her mothering function, as her single motivator in life! According to Graham, "Women are conditioned to regard marriage as an end which is exclusive of everything else since their earliest childhood.'" furthers this point. King, writing for New Frontier in 1937,


Michiel Hom, The Great Depression of Ihe '930s in Canada. Canadian HistoricaJ Association Booklet No. 39 (Ottawa ,984). 3.

2 A woman's mind. according 10 Frederick Tracy. an ethics Professor ciled by k3eth Ughl and Ruth

Roach Pierson. • reproductive rather than productive: Beth Ught and Ruth Roach Pierson. No Easy Road Women in Canada 1:)20$ 10 ,960$ (Toronto: New Hoglown Press. ,990), 57, William D. Tait, writing for the Dalhousie Review in ,930. also argued that a woman's role W8S essentially !hat of wife and mother. He wriles. 'The mothers of great men have done more for the world than ail the so-called female uplifters that ever lived: William D. Tait. ·Some Feminisms·. Dalhousie Review , 0 (1930): 54-55. 3

Gwethalyn Graham, "Women. Are They Human?· The Canadian Forum 16 (Oecember 1936): 22.


Women are mugs: Because they are brought up to believe they must marry and keep house for a living. They are taught to expect less of themselves than men, and to fear and distrust ''working'' for a living as a permanent prospect. The economic system makes this inevitable of course. But what a ridiculous situation! It means that myriads of intelligent women, with extremely varied capabilities and interests, find that if they wish to live a full emotional Iife, to which mating and parenthood are necessary they are automatically doomed to one kind of occupation. whether they Iike it or not. 4 The authors of Canadian Women make the paradox of women's position in Canadian society explicit, suggesting that despite broadened social opportunities for women after World War 1. there was an attempt to recapture the pre-war status For women, this meant a reaffirmation of traditional roles as wives and mothers at a time when increased educational and job opportunities appeared to offer more choice than ever before....the "new woman" was incorporated into a value system that reasserted and redefined the female traits of femininity, domesticity. and dependence. 5 Gender politics in the 1930s were informed by the Victorian ideelogy which placed women in the horr.e and men in the work place". Yet, as Ruth Roach Pierson has noted, the separate spheres doctrine was based on gender

• Marjorie King, "Women are Mugs",


Frontier 1. no. 10 (February 1937): 23.

• Alison Prentice et al., Canadian Women: A History (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1988), 240. • The corollary to the theory that women are wives and mothers while men are crusaders and breadwinners, is that there is something unnatural about men or women who wish to step outside of these ready made roles. This restrictive standard affected even successful women who seemed to live outside of il Agnes MacPhail. the first Canadian woman MP. for exarnple, had to forego a family. She aise had to endure the pejorative depiction of hersel! in Ottawa as "an austere, sharp" tongued 185) who was somehow incomplete despite her accomplishments. It is said that Mac:'hail "..felt strongly the right of a woman to be a person [emphasis in the original], ta do things in the world at large instead of merely serving as helpmate to a man." Mary Quayte Innis, ed.. The Clear Spirit Twenty Canadian Women and Their Times (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1966). 195.

stereotypes, such as males are aggressive and females are passive. 7 Feminist authors have questioned whether these spheres accurately represented male and female relationships or work patterns. Many conclude that they did not. While men were perceived as breadwinners, for example, women, particularty rural women, engaged in ail sorts of activities that contributed to the household coffers in largely unrecorded ways. Their ingenuity and home production was often

essential to survival during the hard financial times of the thirties.· Wornen's contributions to the family economy often went publicly unrecognized, however. "...for decades neither the farm wife nor the fisherman's wife was countoo as a participant in Ganada's labor force."· Historian and literary critic Mary Poovey, in her survey of middle-class women in Victorian England, also makes a case for the f1uidity of the spheres. She denies the biological foundat;on for Victorian ideology, and suggests instead that these notions were socially created and never completElly accepted. She says, "...the middle class ideology we most often associate with the Vic...

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