Feminism in the prairie provinces to 1916
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AbstractIn the years prior to 1916, feminism emerged as an important force in Canadian prairie society. Women, who in Victorian terms were thought of as possessing attributes which gave them responsibility in matters of morality, religion, and charity, took specific social action in these areas. Women's organizations on the Canadian prairies not only provided basic social services to the developing community but attempted to institutionalize their own female and middle-class standards of morality. In doing so they became part of the general reform movement of the prairies and won the support of reformers for the extension of the franchise to women. An integral aspect of these women's organizations was an increased consciousness by women of their own capabilities and of their rights as individuals and as a sex. The social bonds formed within the women's clubs gave rise to a feeling of sexual solidarity which was reinforced by the Victorian emphasis on the differences between the sexes. At the same time many of the leaders of the women's movement were successfully competing with men in a variety of fields and were convinced that the laws of justice entitled women to the vote. Women writers and journalists were especially at the forefront of the fight for the extension of the legal and electoral rights of women. However, suffragists campaigned for the vote less on the grounds of justice than on the basis of the general improvement in society which would result from women's participation in government. They promised not only the enactment of specific reforms such as prohibition but a general purification of society and politics. Prairie feminists, while questioning the legal inequities under which women labored and seeking an extension of women's social role, accepted the existence of specifically masculine and feminine natures. They also adhered to the doctrine of the sacred character of the home, and assumed that women's prime preoccupation would remain her home and family. Feminism in the prairie provinces was a middle-class movement whose leaders fitted into the mainstream of society in philosophy as well as social class. Feminists, in all save their emphasis on the rights of women, shared the ideas about society held by prairie men. In both social and sexual matters, they sought reform through legislative change. Women such as Nellie McClung believed that prohibition would cure many of the ills afflicting society and that suffrage would put women on a level of equality with men. In stressing the uniqueness of women's character and responsibilities, prairie feminists basically accepted a fundamental "inequality" of the sexes. While women's sense of sexual identity was responsible for the emergence of feminism and the feminists' emphasis on feminine virtues led to the relatively easy achievement of their political goals, it also automatically excluded the possibility of true equality. Feminism faded after the achievement of suffrage in 1916 not because equality had been achieved but because few women were prepared to challenge the social and family structures which put women in their secondary position.
Bibliography: p. 196-203.