At the turn of the century, most of Canada was made up of rural communities. The cities were slowly emerging, but the majority of citizens lived in smaller towns and counties scattered outside of the big city borders. This meant that women living in small towns delivered many of the social services that growing communities rely upon to survive and thrive.
Because people tended to live clustered together in smaller neighbourhoods, there was often one person tasked with a specific job in that community. Single women in rural areas found themselves in the role of teachers, nurses, midwives, nannies, and seamstresses.
In larger cities, women could expect to work as secretaries, in a factory or a retail store, or as domestic help. In order to obtain a white-collar job, a woman was expected to have at least a Grade 8 education.
Because of the heavy workload in the home, many rural women didn’t work for wages. However, there were other ways to supplement their income. They could sell the produce of their farm at markets, such as grains, vegetables, dairy products, and eggs. Some women also took in small chores for the neighbours, like laundry or mending clothing. Although some families were able to afford housekeepers to help with the burden of their chores, most families didn’t have that privilege. In nine out of ten households, the wife was solely responsible for the housework.
Although the divorce rate has reached nearly 50 percent in recent years, in 1906, only one in 10 marriages ended in divorce. The success of marriage as an institution seems to be closely tied to the economic position of the family. At that time, if the husband and wife divorced, she was not entitled to any of the family’s property or money. Children too were the property of the husband. In addition, there was also a stigma attached to divorce, which made it an unappealing option for many couples.
One of the most difficult aspects of womanhood near the turn of the century was the unpredictable nature of birth control. Many of the methods used today—condoms cervical caps, and sponges—were still being developed and were simply not as available or as effective as the current models. While some couples tried to use birth control, it wasn’t as widely spoken about or accepted. As a result, woman faced the fear of never knowing when they could become pregnant and how it would impact their health and very survival.
While many families welcomed new children, the unexpected arrival of a new baby was difficult for many women. For one, it made entering the workforce hard, because they would have children to take care of at home. More importantly, it would have been challenging to live life with little control over one’s own body, something that women in Canada can take for granted today.