VIOLET MCNAUGHTON AND THE IDEAL PRAIRIE WOMAN

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Author: Brandi Adams
Date: Jan. 1, 2019
From: Alberta History(Vol. 67, Issue 1.)
Publisher: Historical Society of Alberta
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,737 words
Lexile Measure: 1900L

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The Western Producer, a popular western Canadian farm publication, included in its pages a section devoted to prairie women titled "Mainly for Women," edited by Violet McNaughton. (1) The years between the two World Wars were ones of great change for Canadians, particularly those living on the prairies. During this period, the pages of The Western Producer expounded the virtues which prairie women held in high regard. Virtues such as hard work, perseverance, compassion, self-sacrifice, and a cheerful outlook on life were all important to the prairie housewife. During these years, women overachieved and undervalued their contribution to the family farm. Violet McNaughton provided a voice for women who desired change for prairie women and gave them an outlet in which to express themselves. The ideal prairie woman was a tireless worker who took pride in contributing to the family farm. (2) She continued to push herself despite the endless monotonous work. (3) For example, Kate Graves, a Saskatchewan farm wife during the 1930s, pushed herself to work from five in the morning until ten at night despite suffering from persistent pain. (4) She took great pride in her ability to work, even when well into her seventies. (5) She equated a good woman with that of a good worker. (6) Women like Graves worked despite pain and discomfort simply because there was no one else available to do the work. (7) Working on an isolated farm homestead meant that there was no one else to carry the work load. (8)

It was understood that any respectable farm wife and mother sacrificed for her family. (9) Hard work was an important virtue. A poem entitled "A Bit of Comfort" by Harriet C. Brown in 1926 explored this virtuous attitude toward women's work:

A hundred little trifling cares
Take up my time some way;
Yet, when night comes, I often think,
What have 1 done today?
I've risen early, and toiled late,
Been busy as could be,
And yet at night there's little done
That anyone can see...
This comfort I hold fast.
That she who does the best she can
Shall hear "well done" at last...
My life may mean as much to God
As you clear-shining star. (10)

The poem expressed the weariness of thankless housework, but also expressed a belief that hard work would be recognized one day by the people around her and by God's eternal blessings. Prairie women equated hard work and suffering with a higher morality and virtue, contributing to a sense of moral superiority.

Women saw their sacrifices as part of the co-operation needed in a family farm. A woman named Martha took issue in 1925 with McNaughton's comments in an earlier edition, stating, "I am sure most farm women are making willing sacrifices to help things along. Legislation along that line may be necessary in isolated cases. On the whole co-operation is, I believe, being put into practice in the home where most reforms begin." (11) This article demonstrates a naivety regarding the complexities of circumstances many farm wives faced. A farm wife's co-operation and submission was often abused and exploited. (12) Many others who had lost their husbands to abandonment or death found themselves destitute, without financial resources or rights to the property for which they had worked so hard. (13)

Even though prairie women took pride in their co-operative contributions to the family farm, there was also a perception that women's work was inferior and less important than men's work. (14) Women's work was undervalued and considered to be a labour of love that needed no compensation or appreciation. (15) Alberta MLA Irene Parlby wrote that women were "bred in them the idea" that their labour was inferior to that of men and undervalued their contributions. (16 17) It is understandable that these values permeated a culture of female subordination as women legally had no status or rights and had to be subordinate to their husbands or fathers. (18)

Not everyone shared the sentiment of hard work and sacrifice. Editor Violet McNaughton challenged the tendency of her readers to value hardship as the cost of self-preservation. She wrote,

The point I wanted to emphasize was that too many women make martyrs of
themselves too readily. They lack the practical viewpoint of men, who
will generally speaking, seek a short cut through any form of drudgery.
Men hate drudgery, but women are inclined to accept it, often through a
spirit of self-denial. (19)

A woman who called herself "Enefgee" wrote in 1936 with sentiments similar to those of McNaughton. (20) She had moved to Canada in 1919 after working for her father in a clerical job. (21) She had learned the duties, expectations and burdens of a prairie farm wife first hand and transitioned successfully into the lifestyle, but took issue with women's work not being acknowledged financially: "I, for one, would like at least to have the fact officially recognized that I am a worker, not a drone. A Jack of all trades has nothing on the average farm woman." (22) The next year she submitted another letter complaining of the humiliation and despair she felt working so hard while still relying on government relief: "By the sweat of our brow we have to earn our bread. We produce that sweat but the bread doesn't seem to materialize." (23) The Depression led many women (and likely men) to question the value of sacrifice and hard work for a land that provided no return on their investment.

The drudgery and monotony of daily household tasks was expected to be fulfilled cheerfully, optimistically, and without complaint. (24) It is interesting to note that it was not men who relayed this sentiment in articles and editorials but women themselves. One letter expresses the expectations perfectly: "Perhaps no group of women have suffered more from the conditions of affairs than the farm woman. Certainly, no group of women has labored so hard, so ungrudgingly and so unselfishly." (25) There is a sense conveyed that it is virtuous and right to work without complaint and without thought of repayment. A woman was not only expected to keep her own spirits up during moments of hardship and sacrifice, but was also expected to keep up the spirits of those around her with a sunny disposition.

A 1927 edition of "Mainly Women" included a poem called the "Old Housekeeper's Alphabet" which told of important attitudes and behaviours such as "Always be cheerful and patient, as well as industrious," "To prevent jars in the family, always bring a smiling face to the breakfast table," "Happiness is not so much in doing what you want to, but in wanting to do what you have to," and "Rise in the morning full of gratitude for a new day." (26) Another letter submitted under the pen name of Cheerful discussed through Bible verses and poetry the great virtues of being a loving, dutiful, hardworking wife. (27) In Cheerful's eyes, a woman's hard work and cheery disposition elevated her husband's soul and kept him away from sin and vice. (28) It was therefore the responsibility of the housewife to maintain and elevate the morality of her entire household. A prairie housewife was expected to be nurturing and to bolster her husband's status in the community by setting a good example. (29)

In addition to raising the spirits of her family, particularly the men, a good prairie housewife's job was to lift the spirits of her neighbours, and to contribute to charities that brought about a better community. In an October 1930 edition, Violet McNaughton suggested that most women were concerned about the spirits of their friends and neighbours approaching another harsh prairie winter with few resources: "Many, as you can read elsewhere in this issue, are busy planning how best to get through winter and also lend a hand to help others do the same." (30) She explained how women could take turns hosting a "Hard Times Fun Club," a social club that shared the responsibility for hosting songs and games nights to raise each other's spirits. (31) This virtue of community was vital because of the sense of loneliness and isolation often felt by women who lived miles away from their nearest neighbour. (32) Women had to rely on each other for solace, comfort, advice, and help during times of hardship. (33) Groups were formed to give women a sense of solidarity for various causes such as "The Running Water Club," to generate solutions to the arduous task of carrying water, and "Study Group," to help women further their education through correspondence. (34) In the 1930s a "Friendship Group" was started on the pages of "Mainly for Women" to encourage like-minded women to find pen-pal companions where men could find eligible young women. (35)

The "Mainly for Women" section also created a written touchstone for prairie women and a community upon which they could rely. (36) Prairie women often expanded their view of neighbours and community beyond their own rural towns and villages to the larger nation and even to the world beyond Canadian borders. Frequently the current world events section was referred to as "A Peep at Neighbors" and there was discussion on what could be done to help those unfortunate people who found themselves caught up in conflict and poverty around the world. (37) One "Peep at Neighbors" article focuses on the coal mines of the Rhondda Valley in Wales and the working conditions of women and children labourers. (38) A genuine desire to understand different people and places was expressed in many of the articles regarding world events. There was a sense of compassion and a desire for world peace. (39) Women wanted to know what they could do at home to promote world peace and sought to actively engage themselves in petitions and organizations. (40) As the German Nazi party gained momentum in 1933, Canadian prairie women were interested in learning all they could about the changing political climate, particularly as it pertained to women in Germany. (41) The women who read and participated in these news articles expressed genuine concern with the state of the world and wanted to understand world events and help where they could.

Frugality and resourcefulness were traits in which prairie women took a great deal of pride during the interwar decades. Particularly during the Depression of the 1930s it was a necessity for households to stretch every dollar and make do with less. For the prairie housewife this skill was highly praised and valued even before the Depression. Many articles during this time featured cost cutting methods to reduce waste in the home. For Gertrude V. Fisher, frugality and thrift were virtues possessed by every prairie housewife:

To every housewife the word 'economy' means the very opposite of waste;
so every housewife has practiced some degree of economy and knows from
personal experience what economy means in the home. Every farm woman
knows what it is to 'plan' because all have done some degree of
planning in their daily round of work. To economize is not to waste,
and to plan is to arrange ahead of time. Therefore, a planned economy
is essentially an arrangement to eliminate waste. (42)

An example of such advice was contained in the October 6, 1928 issue of the paper in a section entitled "Homespun Yarns,"

Small turkish towels of a cheap grade make good dish towels for they
absorb moisture quickly and leave no lint.
Keep a piece of dried orange peel in your tea cannister and see what a
delicate and delicious flavor it gives tea.
Paint brushes which have become hard and dry may be softened by soaking
up to the length of the bristles in hot vinegar." (43)

An advertisement from the same issue sells lye, encouraging women to make their own soap to save money. (44) These home advice columns appeared in nearly every issue of the paper's pages and offered women ways that they could reduce expenses, time, and waste in their homes. Some advertisements told women they could earn extra income by selling cream and eggs. It was suggested that women would be eager to do their part to help supplement the family income with their own sources of income. (45) Collecting eggs, making butter and cream and gardening were all considered to be women's work that could be used to supplement the family income. (46) "Do It Yourself" articles for canning, baking, embroidery, sewing, interior design, and gardening taught prairie women the valuable skills they needed for thrift, frugality, and practicality. (47) Into the 1930s, The Western Producer advertised weekly sewing patterns which women could order. (48)

Frugality and learning to stretch every dollar was born out of necessity. Many farm families that relied on government relief during the Depression found the money nowhere near covered the basic needs of their families. One letter posted by a regular contributor, Jenny Pringle, talked of the necessity of making do with next to nothing and the hopelessness of years of poverty.

As for helping her out with suggestions for stretching relief money I'm
afraid nobody can help much. I had to have relief for three months two
years ago and it worked out at 1 1/3 cents a meal. We had milk and
potatoes of our own but I found it very hard and know my family didn't
have what they needed. I made my own soap, the grease I got from the
butcher for nothing. I made milk soups and bought soup bones. Lunches
for school were the hardest problem. I bought 5 and 10 cent cans of
fish or meat and kept them just for lunches. One can make sandwiches
for several days. Instead of cake or fruit we had raisin bread, prune
bread, cinnamon buns, rice, etc. I think ten years without crops is too
long for any family to live on "hope." (49)

When it became clear during the Depression that frugality would not be enough to make ends meet, a sense of hopelessness and despair set in for many women. When they stretched every dollar and made do without on a yearly basis without relief, women began to question the government and a society that would allow this to happen. Gertrude V. Fisher discussed this growing despair in 1933, "Did not most of our settlers in the beginning have homesteads? Where are they today? Mortgaged long ago. Are these homesteaders in any better financial position than those who are buying their land? Apparently not if statistics prove anything.." (50) The Depression led many to question the ethics of the country in which they lived. Enefgee wrote in a 1937 editorial, "As they see it, reliefers eat the bread of idleness, are better dressed, and some actually use cars, all at their expense." (51)

The prairie housewife in the interwar years of 1925 to 1937, as seen in The Western Producer, were hard-working, determined, helpful, optimistic, compliant, frugal, and virtuous. The prairie housewife willingly and eagerly made sacrifices in the name of her family's future, however many questions arose after years of thankless monotonous work. The events of the war and the Depression left an imprint on the lives of many prairie women. Still, the virtues described in the pages of The Western Producer are timeless in many ways and can be seen in the women and young girls of current day Prairie Canada.

Endnotes

(1) Margaret Hobbs. (September 2009). "The Women's Pages of The Western Producer, 1925-1939: Violet McNaughton and Interwar Feminism in Canada" [Online], Available: http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com.libproxy.uregina.ca:2048/tinyurl/tinyurl.resolver.aspx?tinvurl=IKVYA [2018. Feb.].

(2) Kathryn McPherson. "Was the 'Frontier' Good for Women'?: Historical Approaches to Women and Agricultural Settlement in the Prairie West. 1870-1925." Atlantis 25, no. 1 (2000). 78.

(3) Christine Georgina Bye. "I Like to Hoe My Own Row': A Saskatchewan Far Woman's Notions about Work and Womanhood during the Great Depression." Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 26. no. 3 (2005), 142.

(4) Ibid., 140.

(5) Ibid., 143.

(6) Ibid., 140.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) "Mainly for Women," The Western Producer, 7 October 1926. 9. Included in "The Women's Pages of The Western Producer. 1925-1939: Violet McNaughton and Interwar Feminism in Canada." Documents selected by Margaret Hobbs and Susan Wurtele. (Sept 2009), http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/tinyurl/tinvurl.resolver.aspx7tinvurk68JU (March 2018).

(11) "Mainly for Women," The Western Producer, 25 October 1925, 12.

(12) Kathryn McPherson. "Was the 'Frontier' Good for Women?" vol. 25, no. 1 (2000), 77.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Christine Georgina Bye. "'I Like to Hoe My Own Row': A Saskatchewan Farm Women's Notion about Work and Womanhood during the Great Depression." Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies. 26 no. 3 (2005), 142.

(15) "Mainly for Women," The Western Producer, 1 October 1925. 12. Margaret Hobbs and Susan Wurtele. (Sept 2009), http://asp6ncw.alexanderstreet.com.libproxv.uregina.ca:2048/tinyurl/tinvurl.resolver.aspx?tinvurl=62SI (March 2018)

(16) "Mainly for Women," The Western Producer, 25 October 1925, 12.

(17) Ibid., 1 October 1925, 12.

(18) Katheryn McPherson, "Was the "Frontier' Good for Women?: Historical Approaches to Women and Agricultural Settlement in the Prairie West. 1870-1925." Atlantis vol. 25, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2000). 78.

(19) "Mainly for Women." The Western Producer. 21 October 1926. 9.

(20) Ibid., 9.

(21) Ibid., 9.

(22) Ibid., 9.

(23) Ibid., 9.

(24) Christine Georgina Bye. "'I Like to Hoe My Own Row': A Saskatchewan Farm Woman's Notion about Work and Womanhood during the Great Depression." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 26. no. 3 (2005), 143.

(25) "Mainly for Women." The Western Producer. I October 1925. 12.

(26) Ibid., October 1927, 12.27

(27) Ibid., 7 October 1926. 9.

(28) Ibid., 9.

(29) Christine Georgina Bye. "'I Like to Hoe My Own Row": A Saskatchewan Farm Women's Notions about Work and Womanhood during the Great Depression." Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies vol. 26. no. 3 (2005). 145-46.

(30) "Mainlv for Women." The Western Producer. 30 October 1930. 14.

(31) Ibid., 14.

(32) Kathryn McPherson, "Was the 'Frontier' Good for Women?", vol. 25, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2000). 77.

(33) Ibid., 77-78.

(34) Ibid., 18 October 1928. 18.

(35) Ibid., 7 October 1937. 13.

(36) Margaret Hobbs. "Introduction." The Women's Pages of The Western Producer. 1925-1939: Violet McNaughton and Interwar Feminism in Canada. (Sept 2009) http//asp6new.alexandcrstreet.comtinvurl/tinvurl.resolver.aspx7tinvurlslKVYA (Feb 2018).

(37) "Mainly for Women." The Western Producer. 26 October 1928, 9.

(38) Ibid., 21 October 1926. 16.

(39) Ibid., 27 October 1927. 13

(40) Ibid., 20 October 1927. 12.

(41) Ibid., 12 October 1933. 11.

(42) Ibid., 20 October 1927. 12.

(43) Ibid., 6 October 1928, 16.

(44) Ibid., 18.

(45) Ibid, 15 October 1925. pp 12.

(46) Angela F.. Davis. ""Country Homemakers": The Daily Lives of Prairie Women as Seen Through the Women's Page of the Grain Grower's Guide. 1908-1928.". Canadian Papers in Rural History, vol. 8. ed. Donald H. Akenson: 1. 63-174.

(48) Ibid., 1 October 1931. 16.

(49) Ibid., 15 October 1936, p. 11.

(50) Ibid., 12 October 1933.

(51) Ibid., 14 October 1937.

by Brandi Adams

Brandi Adams is a History Honours Undergraduate at the University of Regina.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Adams, Brandi. "VIOLET MCNAUGHTON AND THE IDEAL PRAIRIE WOMAN." Alberta History, vol. 67, no. 1, 2019, p. 2+. Gale Academic OneFile Select, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA572716678%2FEAIM%3Fu%3Dureginalib%26sid%3DEAIM%26xid%3D4e8e4261. Accessed 19 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A572716678