Chapter 10. Societies of British North America to 1860

10.7 Gender Roles

Patriarchal authority was the norm in the colonies, less so among some Aboriginal communities, but even there missionaries were making changes. Property ownership in Upper Canada and the Atlantic colonies favoured men and, given the link between property ownership and the franchise, it favoured them politically as well.

Women and Girls

The role of women in the first half of the 19th century was diverse, ranging from life in a religious order to working in a logging camp.

Even though many industries at the time were very male oriented, women helped in woodlot management and harvesting on their family farms. Even in the logging camps, women might find work as cooks, laundresses, and boarding-house keepers. Villages like Bytown (Ottawa), however rowdy and dangerous they were at their worst, contained a substantial female population. Similarly, mining towns were heavily male enclaves but not entirely bereft of women. It was rare to find females working in underground coal mines in British North America, even though in England women laboured in pits until prohibited by law in 1842, and in Belgium for decades after that. Women did, however, find work in haulage and at the pithead; Aboriginal women in particular played a role in Vancouver Island’s coal industry loading the ore from the minehead in cedar baskets and then down the long hill to the waterfront and onto ships.

In the days before factories, fine work associated with textiles and shoe manufacture was often performed by women. Since most artisanal operations were independent — that is, run by families or small employers — the living and working spaces were often closely connected if not overlapping. The manufacture of wool — carding, spinning, and weaving — was cottage industry work in which both men and women participated, but in which women predominated. Likewise the manufacture of dairy products (milk, butter, cheese) was an important component of female farmwork, as was canning preserves. Women made these products not simply for themselves but for sale. Fall fairs presented opportunities for women to show off their products under the scrutiny of their peers; a coveted blue ribbon would mean orders from local grocers and thus were an important source of cash. Because farm produce was often sold under a system of credit, any cash a woman brought in might be a household’s chief source of hard currency. The household was, therefore, much more than a place of domesticity: it was a site of production.

There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between the impact the fur trade had on pre-contact Aboriginal skillsets and the industrialization of “women’s work” in the 19th century. During the fur trade, copper pots made handwoven cedar baskets obsolete; in the era of industrialization, textile mills dealt a fatal blow to homespun clothes-making. (Indeed, the term homespun changed in meaning from denoting artisanal skill to a derisory adjective meaning unsophisticated and unlovely.) In both cases, manufactured goods were substituted for time-consuming crafts and the one gradually squeezed out the other.

But women’s work remained significant to the social economy of early British North America, particularly in farming, logging, and fishing. New farmland in many cases had to be carved out of the forests, so while the men did the hard work of clearing the land, the women tended to the early planting, weeding, and some animal rearing. If logging was lucrative, men might carry on with that seasonally or over a longer term to accumulate money for the farm. The frontier farm women thus perpetuated the near-independence experienced by habitant women married to fur traders in New France: their men were off elsewhere earning money so the farm was the woman’s domain. Even after the farms matured into more stable economic propositions, women’s work was critical to their success.

Many other women during this time operated boarding houses and laundries. In communities centred on resource-extraction, generally dominated by men, there was high demand for good accommodations, a daily meal or two, and clean clothes. Women who provided these services brought in cash to contribute to the household economy. In single-industry and/or company towns from Cape Breton to Vancouver Island where workers were paid with scrip or credits to be spent at the company store, a woman’s income might be critical. Where possible, women opened and operated saloons (perhaps capitalized by their wage-earning husbands) and small stores. Sometimes these were temporary measures, part of a plan calculated to provide an income when the husband could no longer manage heavy work. Amanda (Gough) Norris’s experience illustrates a similar cross-generational experience: she was one of the first English immigrants to Vancouver Island in the 1850s and she worked alongside her husband in his print shop until their sons were old enough to take her place.[1]

In other cases, women raised chickens, pigs, and even cows on very small urban properties. Taking in boarders, even in cramped little homes and tenements, was another possibility, one for which women were usually responsible. These were all financial survival strategies that reduced costs and provided hard-to-come-by cash.

As support grew in the early 19th century for formal education, the need arose for teachers. Although the Catholic tradition in French Canada provided generations of educator development, there was nothing in the way of formal training for English-speakers in British North America. Women took on many of the early teaching responsibilities in Upper Canada, most seizing on it as an opportunity to improve their incomes. Teaching typically took place in the teacher’s home, although small academies also appeared, especially after 1820. For these “lady teachers,” expertise came with experience, although many — perhaps most — never intended to teach for more than a few years until they were married. Widows and lifelong spinsters, to take a different life-course view, came to teaching as a survival strategy and a means to attain financial security.

By the 1840s education was becoming more regulated, so the setting of the independent teacher-proprietor working out of her home declined. Female teachers were generally restricted to teaching girls and boys below the age of puberty. Older boys were the responsibility of male teachers. To be clear, however, most boys and girls did not proceed very far in formal education: the advantages of literacy and numeracy were not appreciated by many agricultural and/or industrial families. The emergent middle classes, however, placed a high value on literacy. Their growing wealth made the business of opening a small school a worthwhile venture.

As ideals of womanhood changed mid-century, middle-class parents wanted their daughters to be educated and provide some “refinement” and a domestic sensibility. Middle-class families demonstrated their success by sending their daughters to school, and girls who turned into literate, organized, respectable young women were more likely to marry good middle-class lads, thereby ensuring the family’s security for another generation. As more girls received this kind of education, demands grew for more specialized skills that moved beyond literacy and behaviour. Musical and artistic education was added to the mix, making daughters even more attractive as prospective brides. An education that extended into the girl’s mid- to late teens might prepare her for a career as a teacher-proprietor.[2]

The Catholic French-Canadian experience offered different opportunities to women. Despite its strict hierarchical structure and gender roles, the Catholic Church nevertheless contained room in which a woman could manoeuvre. Whether it was in health care or education, a number of full-time and lifelong career paths were available to women of all social classes. Almost entirely, these positions involved taking religious orders, vows of celibacy, and possibly poverty as well. Certainly women who “took the veil” gave up much, but they also gained security within the largest corporate organization in the colonies and the possibility of making independent and consequential decisions on a daily basis.[3]

Women also found work on the legal margins of society. The sex trade was alive and well, usually concentrated in brothels somewhere near the docks. Dancehall girls — women who were paid for a dance — blurred the edges between the suggestion and the provision of sex as a business proposition. In gold rush towns of the Cariboo, the acrobatic “hurdy gurdy girls” charged a dollar a dance, which mainly involved being thrown into the air, sometimes upside down. Clearly the prospect of spending time with and being in physical if not sexual contact with a woman had a great appeal to the multitude of men working in resource towns. Dancehall owners exploited this to the point that dance girls were often and very wrongly equated with prostitutes. In Victoria these roles were often filled by Aboriginal women, so they faced the double opprobrium of the moral and, inevitably, racial prejudices held by crusading journalists, politicians, and clerics alike.[4]

More generally, the experiences of Aboriginal women were different from those of non-Aboriginal women. On the West Coast they traditionally worked in food preparation: fishing and hunting was usually done by the men, but the women were responsible for dressing and preparing the food. The skills developed propelled Aboriginal women into the multitude of salmon canneries that appeared on the West Coast in the late 19th century.

These women also worked in horticulture and were quick to seize on earning opportunities in the fields of settler-farmers. Aboriginal women on the coast had a long-established claim to their earnings, which were not necessarily shared with the men in their lives. As well, child-rearing and care responsibilities were often the lot of “the infirm,” to use one historian’s phrase. This was particularly the case when traditional work became industrialized, such as when Aboriginal women (and mothers) worked in the canneries.[5] While child-minding might not always be available to non-Aboriginals at least it was sometimes enjoyed by First Nations women.

Indeed, the responsibility of reproduction fell to women in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies. In households containing extended families, mothers might receive assistance raising their children; women in nuclear family households fared less well. Daughters were trained into motherhood by taking on responsibilities for younger siblings, which, given the fertility rates of the period, they were likely to have. From the filles du roi to Confederation, there were significant social and economic pressures on women to marry and have children. In rural areas, children contributed significantly to the business of farming; primogeniture left a widow vulnerable to the prospect of expulsion from her home, so having children with whom she could live in old age was a practical strategy.

Men and Boys

In a study of manliness in 19th century Nova Scotia, Janet Guildford identifies three ideals of masculinity. These rose sequentially though they overlapped significantly, existed concurrently, were in conflict with one another, and sometimes even blended together.

The first is the “masculine achiever,” a character who subscribes to the view that by hard work and ambition he would be rewarded with wealth and success. This ideal keeps his feelings to himself for the most part, is driven, and believes very much in the value of individual autonomy. The second is the “Christian gentleman,” a variant that appears around the mid-century and is more likely to display sympathy and even empathy, less likely to measure his manliness by his wealth, and more concerned with proprieties (as he understands them). No less hard working, he is the embodiment of “evangelical Christianity,” a movement that took root after the 1830s across the English-speaking world. Finally, there is the “masculine primitive,” the muscular and physically powerful male who represents the success of the “race.” It is not a coincidence that the masculine primitive appears around the same time as Darwinian theories about the survival of the fittest.[6]

These were types favoured and promoted and dissected in middle-class literature, in the pulpit, in newspapers, and in theatre. And they had their uses for the emerging colonies. Missionary zeal augmented and tempered mercantile muscle while physical prowess made for a strong militia in a strong empire. While each might critique the weaknesses of the other, they were distinctively 19th century creations. In the dominant heterosexual narrative of the day, each one had to be able to turn his abilities into the sort of earnings that would win him a bride and a family — the twin pillars of Victorian society.

Men often walked away from this domestic ideal. After all, ideals of personal autonomy were not necessarily compatible with the binding role of patriarch. This was part of the appeal of heading off to goldfields and forest frontiers. When the American writer Mark Twain had his character Huck Finn say that he’s going to “light out for the territories,” he was speaking of this chance to escape the grasp of “sivilization” and routine. If one considers a boy being born in the 1820s when the farming and logging frontiers were expanding rapidly, then reaching adulthood in the 1840s and 1850s,  by which time towns and cities were growing and opportunities for independent action shrinking, it is easy to imagine him wishing for a life he knew second-hand from his elders. As the number and size of farms available to homestead or to buy in the Canadas and the Maritimes shrank, the western frontier on the Plains became more attractive.

And economic and demographic factors often forced their hand. Opportunities to marry are closely tied to the ratio of men to women: where there is an imbalance (and there was a radically stark imbalance in British Columbia among the newcomer population after 1858, running as high as 200 men to every non-Aboriginal woman), lifelong bachelorhood was likely for some. Very local economic conditions also affected men’s options in these years. In Lower Canada in the 1820s, as the availability of new farmland for young families diminished and as prosperity on existing seigneuries slipped, the nuptiality rate dropped as well. If there was a pioneering option nearby, regardless of how poor the soil might be, marriage numbers rebounded. And, perhaps most significantly, if there existed a reliable source of part-time — perhaps seasonal — labour for men, possibly in logging or fishing, then marriage once again became a possibility.[7]

In something like a mirror image of women’s experiences, men were also expected to follow certain gender roles in work and other socioeconomic activities. The commercial seal hunt in Newfoundland and Labrador provides one example. In the 1700s this was an activity that involved both men and women. Seals were hunted near to shore and whole families participated. Then, in the late 18th century, the work became organized on a larger scale. Vessels set out in the spring to hunt seals in more commercially viable numbers, in part because of rising demand for seal oil. At this point, women were excluded from the process and it became “men’s work.” By the middle of the 1800s, according to historian Willeen Keough,

the dominant cultural understanding of the seal fishery [was] an exclusively masculine space — where men and boys tested themselves in a harsh, frozen landscape; where cruel sealing masters drove their crews to exhaustion while greedy merchants urged on their fleets with the toast “Bloody decks and a bumper crop”; where countless ships were crushed in the ice and thousands of men lost their lives.

There was a huge appeal, nonetheless, in the machismo, heroic, mythic features of this business, and males young and old competed for a chance to join the fleet.[8] Most importantly, there was money to be made and sealing was as good a way to do so as any along Newfoundland’s northeast coast. Being gendered into the role of seal hunter meant, conversely, being gendered out of other possibilities. The individualistic striver, risking life and limb for a good catch so as to cover the family’s costs, was never objectively the best of all possible options.

Boys had to make choices from an early age. Apprenticeships, as we have seen, and labouring jobs as well often began by age seven or eight. Boys pursuing a trade were usually “apprenticed out” to another household where they were trained and, for all intents and purposes, raised.

As the overwhelming majority of British North Americans either lived on the land or in fishing villages, the typical boyhood involved hard labour that followed the hours of daylight rather than a clock on the wall. Until the 1870s, working people in towns had only one day of rest a week: Sunday. This left little time to recharge small bodies which they badly needed, given the beatings regularly administered by overseers in some of the colonies’ truly Dickensian-like workplaces. The physical demands of boyhood were high in this period, possibly higher than they had been at any time before in human history outside of plantation slavery. Formal schooling, moreover, offered little in the way of relief.

Marriage and Divorce

English common law was used throughout anglophone British North America, although not always uniformly. The Maritime colonies’ traditions were heavily influenced by those of New England and New York, from where so many Loyalists had come, whereas Upper Canada tended to follow British traditions. The effect was to produce a patchwork quilt of civil law legislation across British North America, which was reflected in the divorce laws of the day.

Nova Scotia, for example, established parameters for divorce in the late 1750s that were more generous than those in place in English law. Divorce could be pursued because of adultery under both legal realms, but in Nova Scotia wives and husbands could also file for divorce on the basis of impotence, physical abuse, and too close a familial connection (also called “consanguinity”). In New Brunswick “cruelty” was replaced by “frigidity” in 1791 legislation. Prince Edward Island copied the New Brunswick legislation in 1833, making a few changes of its own, including allowing wives to retain a “common law right to a life interest in one-third of the real property at the death of their husband,” even after divorce. All of the Atlantic colonies sought to punish “fornication” (heterosexual relations outside of marriage) and adultery, and on the whole they were all relatively even-handed in the treatment of men and women.

Upper Canada followed a path more consistent with English law, which made divorce a matter for Parliament itself to decide on a case-by-case basis; for all intents and purposes, divorce was an impossibility in Upper Canada. In Lower Canada the hostility of the Catholic clergy to the concept of divorce was seemingly unchanged from the pre-Conquest era; it was simply illegal and immoral. It was possible after 1839 to dissolve individual marriages in Lower Canada by statute, which drew the two Canadas closer together in practice.

In 1857 Parliament in London introduced the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, and the colonies of British North America spent some of the next 20 years struggling with how they might conform to this single model. It proved impossible and, although Canada West finally allowed for the possibility of divorce, it was even more cumbersome than was the case in Britain. The British legislation, moreover, introduced the “notorious double standard for cause,” which made it so much easier for husbands to secure relief from an adulterous wife than vice versa.[9] Long after Confederation the responsibility for divorce remained a provincial matter and an artifact of the distinctive experiences of the individual colonies.[10]

Key Points

  • Notwithstanding the core patriarchal values of the era, mid-19th century women played important economic roles.
  • Changes in the production of food and cloth impacted women by reducing the value of their domestic output. Some women turned instead to providing services like lodging, meals, or laundry.
  • The roles of men and boys were equally gendered and the expectation was every bit as great that they would marry and produce other colonists.

  1. John Douglas Belshaw, Colonization and Community: The Vancouver Island Coalfield and the Making of the British Columbian Working Class (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 105-107.
  2. Jane Errington, "Ladies and Schoolmistresses: Educating Women in Early Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada," Historical Studies in Education 6, issue 1 (1994): 71-96.
  3. Marta Danylewycz, Taking the Veil: An Alternative to Marriage, Motherhood, and Spinsterhood in Québec, 1840-1920 (Toronto: UTP, 1987).
  4. Jean Barman, "Aboriginal Women on the Streets of Victoria: Rethinking Transgressive Sexuality during the Colonial Encounter," in Contact Zones: Aboriginal Women and Settler Women in Canada's Colonial Past, eds. Katie Pickles and Myra Rutherdale (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), 205-27.
  5. John Lutz, "After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Working Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890," Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (1992): 69-93.
  6. Janet Guildford, "Creating the Ideal Man: Middle-Class Women's Constructions of Masculinity in Nova Scotia, 1840-1880," in Age of Transition: Readings in Canadian Social History, ed. Norman Knowles (Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 141-2.
  7. Colin M. Coates, The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Québec (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000), 142.-3.
  8. Willeen Keough, "(Re-)telling Newfoundland Sealing Masculinity: Narrative and Counter-Narrative," Journal of the CHA 2010 Revue de la SHC, New Series 21, no.1 (2010): 133-4.
  9. Wendy Owen and J.M. Bumsted, "Divorce in a Small Province: A History of Divorce on Prince Edward Island from 1833," Acadiensis XX, no.2 (Spring 1991): 86-94.
  10. Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 136-9).


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10.7 Gender Roles by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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