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10 March, 2011


It is pure coincidence that I tackle this post on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, a time set aside to honour the suffragist movement and the courage and tenacity of the countless brave women of conviction in this country of ours over the course of the past several hundred years.

Earlier this week I received an interesting email message from Rebecca Beausaert, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at York University.  Her doctoral dissertation is about life in small town/rural Ontario, ca. 1870-1914 and she is focusing on the communities of Dresden, Tillsonburg and Elora with emphasis on the development of social activities for women.  She has conducted extensive research on the subject and expressed disappointment at the dearth of useful information in media and library records in particular; all of which is not too surprising considering that to me the rural, small-town housewife of 100-150 years ago is the most unheralded segment of society in history today.

I promised Rebecca my full support, for what it is worth, and wish her all the best as she continues with this worthy undertaking.  Meantime, she has inspired me to offer the following from the far reaches of my memory.

When considering the period 1870-1914, we are talking about my grandmothers, my mother and my aunts.  I have little documented information, but what I do have are stories passed on to me and memories gleaned from overhearing recollections shared by demonstrative family elders.  Mine was an extremely expressive family and I learned very early to be a good listener.

As a youngster, I came to appreciate the fact that the women in my family and the families of our close acquaintance, came from humble roots and as dedicated full-time housewives (home makers in today's vernacular) utilized skills and tender loving care that was their birthright.  I don't think that it is a far-fetched generalization to suggest that most women in small town Ontario 100-150 years ago were resourceful, true grit, hard workers who invested totally in their homes and families.

These women knew nothing of the luxury of vacuum cleaners, automatic dish washers, automatic
washers and dryers for laundry -- the list goes on.  Even indoor running water and toilet facilities were available only to the very privileged.  We're talking about multi-taskers of the highest order here. Cleaning, care-giving, mending, knitting, quilting, putting "down" of jams and preserves and baking were common ordinary tasks with continuing emphasis on nutritious meal preparation dictated by limited budgets and availability of seasonal foods, much of which came from back yard gardens.

In lieu of any formal health care and out of necessity, mothers of this period had to be their own in-house health practitioners regularly administering  mustard plasters, goose grease rubs and linseed poultices for those in their care.  There was also nothing like good old chicken soup and hot lemon juice and honey for children coming down with the flu or a cold.  Baking soda, apple cider vinegar and cayenne pepper too all came from the kitchen cupboard with special medicinal benefits.

Much of the economy in small town rural centres was agriculture oriented and the contribution of the farm wife who did not hesitate when required to exchange her house keeping apron for a pitch fork or a hoe, was so commonly taken for granted at the time and subsequently overlooked in present-day history.

Social life was pretty much centred around church activities, women's organizations being the catalyst for most fund-raising and mission and outreach work in the community.  With family homes the focal point, card parties, afternoon teas and summer picnics were a popular form of socializing and fellowship.  Quilting and sewing bees, oddly enough, were considered to be change-of-pace activities outside the home.  Music concerts were also a well-attended community family function as were rare productions staged in various town halls by roving theatrical companies.  For most women, however, there was little time in their busy weekly routine for recreational activities.  Generally, more often than not, any spare time was spent reading a good book.

Remember too, that there were no radios, movies theatres or televisions in those days.  Alexander Graham Bell had yet to invent the telephone and all communication was by word of mouth.  Gas-powered carriages instead of horse and buggy?...Don't be silly!

Rosemary Neering in her wonderful book Canadian Housewife, An Affectionate History, writes about the era of the full-time housewife coming to an end by the mid 1900s.  "Major feminist lonnes such as The Femine Mystic, the arrival of the birth control pill, increasing numbers of women going to university and seeking careers, full-time employment outside the home, prosperity, fast food, increasing automation, a reluctance to spend one's life focused mainly on the domestic sphere -- all those things meant major changes in the way women spent their time."

Indeed, times and conditions have changed for women in the last century and a half, and they can be proud of the role they play in all aspects of society today.  But on this occasion, the honour goes to those sisters who diligently and faithfully carried out their roles on the home front when life was so much simpler and less complex.

"A man's work is sun to sun, but women's work is never done," the saying goes.

A debt of gratitude is owed all those grandmothers and moms who lovingly toiled over wood-burning stoves and wringer washers more than a century ago.  We could not have made it without them!  I'm sure I speak for dear old Gramps and Dad too.

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