Nellie’s time: those gals weren’t slouches in the old days

Myrna Driedger, MLA Winnipeg Manitoba Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus
Myrna Driedger
Broadway Journal

They produced and served the meals at home, cleaned and organized the house down to the most basic of chores, brought up the kids, and spent the long days in the most cumbersome of outfits and undergarments.

I have been talking recently about the impact Nellie McClung had on women by fighting to get them the vote in Manitoba. But what was life like in 1916 and the years leading up to this momentous occasion? What was considered “normal” for women? Did most women stay at home and raise their children? What was going on in the world around them? The fight for women’s rights took place in a time of great change. Revolutions in politics, economics, philosophy, and social structures opened people up to new ways of thinking.

Although Nellie witnessed a lot of social change prior to the turn of the century, she is also considered one of the catalysts for such change. Women and other minorities were awarded the right to vote and run for office. By the time of Nellie’s death in 1953, she had seen monumental changes in the lives of all women in Canada.

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 scattered outside 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. The bulk of household work was still done by hand – and it fell almost entirely on a woman’s shoulders. While a husband or father was away at work, the women of the house were expected to perform all the daily duties required to keep the household running. And each day started early.

Most women were up at or before daybreak. For rural women, the day began with chores around the farm, such as collecting the eggs and milk for the day’s meals and to sell. In addition to preparing breakfast for the family, the wife may have been expected to draw the bathwater in the morning, and prepare the laundry and mending that she would do in the afternoon. Many women also tended vegetable gardens and picked fruit and berries.

With her husband off at work, or working in the fields, and the children away at school or work, the woman of the house would get down to the more difficult chores. This included cleaning the house, baking bread, doing all the family’s washing and mending of clothes, and unless she could afford help or new equipment, most of this would be done by hand. Not only did a woman have to think of each day’s meals, she also had to plan for the weeks and months ahead. Canning and preserving vegetables was an essential part of living in Canada because during the winter months fresh fruits and vegetables were simply not available. In the spring and summer, women of the household, sometimes working with other family members or neighbours, would spend long hours preserving food for the coming winter.

These women were tough

And remember, she would most likely do all her work while still watching and caring for her younger children. While some might have been old enough to attend school, families tended to be larger in the early 1900s, so there were always younger children at home. After the chores were done, the woman of the house would prepare and serve the evening meal, then clean and wash the dishes used for the meal. The next day she would do it all again.

At the turn of the last century, women were tough. Not just because they worked long hours doing grueling labour, or because they took care of their children and husbands, but because they did so in constricting outerwear, dresses, corsets and stockings. When Nellie McClung was a young woman, a typical day’s dress would include stockings, undergarments, a corset, a slip and a blouse and a long skirt or long dress. Dresses and skirts reached down to the ankles, and most sleeves extended all the way to the wrist – even during the hottest days of summer.

So as you can see, life was very different for women at the beginning of the 20th century. For Nellie to have had the courage and energy to do all that she did was truly remarkable. We all have much to thank her for.

I hope that you value the privilege we have to choose our political representatives. Regardless of whom you voted for, I certainly hope that you exercised your right to vote in the recent federal election. And wouldn’t it be gratifying to see women of all ideologies line up at the ballot box on April 19, 2016 to vote for your MLA in the provincial election?

Myrna Driedger is MLA for Charleswood.

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