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Article posted: July 11, 1999
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
Is the work of pioneer farm women invisible? Carol Bennett thinks so.
Bennett is the author of several books of eastern Ontario history. She co-owns a small publishing house in Renfrew whose books are respected throughout the country. She decided to bring the Invisible Women of pioneer days into the limelight.
Her book on the history of women in rural Ontario begins with arrival in the backwoods and the creation of a new home there. She looks at the course of a woman's domestic life, and then moves outward to education, religion, medicine, all areas with which a woman might be concerned without treading too much into a man's world. Finally she goes to the forbidden land of politics, where women first looked for the vote, and then began more active participation.
This book is not scholarly. Bennett looks at a wide variety of topics, making observations about the way life was lived, then illustrating it with one or two case studies. The format makes for interesting reading and is thought provoking. As she intended, the women she talks about interest us and I usually wish I could know more about them.
Doris Fleming of Carleton Place tells about nurse's training in the bad old days when students were like forced labour. She talks about endless scrubbing, feeding, folding. It reminded me of my sister's story of learning to make a hospital bed in the late 1950s, when a quarter tossed on a sheet was expected to bounce. If it didn't, the sheet was too loose and the bed had to be remade. I have never understood why old-style nursing supervisors felt that they had to be unpleasant to be effective.
Weddings were much simpler affairs in the distant past, with a boxful of small gifts and a trunk of linens which they bride had made. This was enough to start a new household. The pride and excitement were as great as today, however.
One aspect of older women's lives which we forget is their role as midwife and general nurse to the community. Certain women who were handy at it would acquire a reputation and spend a great deal of time assisting at births, while others would simply work in their own family circle. Their training was a lifetime's experience, far from a lecture hall. This is not only an example of the value placed on age, but also a reminder that rural communities were more cooperative affairs. People helped their neighbours and were helped in their turn.
There is a reminder about one-room schools. Inez Miller of Lake Dore says she started school in 1909: "We had a mile and three-quarters to walk. All our work was done on a slate. We had a little bottle of water and a rag and we would wipe the slate clean when we were done."
Bennett's wide ranging stories build a picture of hard work and full lives, crammed with interest and experiences. Most of her examples come from eastern Ontario, but they could be anywhere in the province. I expect that her readers will find themselves remembering similar stories told by women in their own families. Perhaps they will even call to mind faces from the dim past whom they thought they had forgotten completely.
This is a book which will interest anyone with an interest in women's history, or social history, in Ontario over the past two hundred years. I would also say that anyone who has ever known a rural woman and would like to understand her life better would also benefit from reading
Invisible Women by Carol Bennett McCuaig is published by Juniper Books and is available from Global Genealogy & History Shoppe.
Ryan's Heritage Notebook...
As our families moved from one part of Canada to another, they dealt with the different land systems. Some had counties, some had ranges. The way of dividing and granting land was very different. As an Ontarian, I always found the prairie way of measuring land difficult to understand. Recently I came across a book which explains land settlement in Manitoba in a way which is clear and also complete. By Section, Township and Range: Studies in Prairie Settlement, by John Langton Tyman (Brandon: Assiniboine Historical Society, 1972) is very useful. The early chapter "Format for Farming" is a capsule explanation of the survey system.
Mills and Mill Villages of Severn Township, by James T. Angus (Orillia: Severn Publications, 1998) is a new book about a new place! Severn township was created in 1994 by melding Matchedash and Orillia townships and parts of Tay and Medonte. These are all in Simcoe County, Ontario. The oversize book looks at mills (which were once the centre of every community) in the area and the villages which grew up around them. As well as milling, Angus tells about other businesses and organizations, schools, fairs, churches and people. There are splendid illustrations also. Severn Publications has other historical books also. You can reach them at 95 Matchedash Street North, #404, Orillia ON (telephone and fax: 705 329 2127).
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources