And on That Farm He Had a Wife: Ontario
farm women and feminism
Monda Halpern, 1900-1970.
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001; ISBN 0-7735-2184-4;
$27.95; 256 pp.
23 , 2004: It seems as if Canadian gender historians
spend a lot of time reading urban history.
Perhaps that was why it was such a breath of fresh air to
read Monda Halpern's And on That Farm He Had a Wife: Ontario
Farm Women and Feminism, 1900-1970. As Halpern points out,
Canadian rural history has commonly been concerned with the
Prairies and as a result, there are large gaps in our knowledge
of rural and agrarian life elsewhere in Canada (p. 21). Beyond
a simple description of life on the farm for Ontario women,
this book has a clear mandate to challenge the perception
that farm women were too busy and too conservative to join
the ranks of feminists in Ontario. Halpern argues that "Ontario
farm women were indeed feminist and that this feminism was
more progressive than most of us would presume" (p. 3).
Halpern begins by positioning the study in a larger context.
Borrowing from Naomi Black, Halpern differentiates between
equity feminism, that which promotes equality with men because
of similarities between women and men and is traditionally
more political in nature, and social feminism, that which
"unlike equity feminism, sought for women to remake,
not simply fit into patriarchal systems and values and thus
function as an expression of opposition to them." Halpern's
thesis is that in rural Ontario social feminism thrived from
1900 until the 1970s. This statement challenges historians
on two fronts. First, it challenges those who view farm women
during this period as reformers but not as feminists, though
Halpern fails to mention the work of Yolande Cohen who deals
with this very question in Quebec.
Second, she is creating a new periodization. Historians who
have looked at farming in Ontario have generally considered
1900-1950 to be the bridge between pioneer or traditional
farming and the "new agriculture" that resulted
from increased mechanization and specialization.
By situating her study around women rather than farming techniques,
Halpern provides a new periodization that extended to the
1970s when second-wave feminism began making inroads into
the farm women's movement.
Working in a relatively unfamiliar area, Halpern addresses
the gaps and silences that have traditionally existed in farm
women's history in Canada as well as some of the methodological
difficulties she faced throughout her research. The seemingly
simple question of identification is a case in point. For
example, is a farm woman the wife of a farmer? Does that man
have to be the owner of the farm or can he also be a manager
of a farm? What about the daughters of farmers? Or does the
term "farm women" refer specifically to women farmers?
The next challenge is discovering who these women were. Certainly
the census, which considered a woman a farmer only if she
owned and operated the farm without husbands or fathers, does
not provide a workable definition for the historian. In this
book, Halpern defines farm women as the wives or unmarried
adult daughters of farmers. Then there is the question of
social class. What becomes clear as she develops this analysis
is the invisibility of farm women in the history of Ontario.
Halpern realizes that in this book she is only beginning the
process of filling in some of these holes. If the reader is
looking for the voices of black, aboriginal, Mennonite, or
francophone women, they will not be found in this initial
study. This is a history of "majority" farm women.
As the first of its kind, Halpern views this study as a "crucial
jumping off point from which scholars can pursue more nuanced
treatments of the feminism of all farm women, including detailed
consideration of their various racial, religious, and ethnic
backgrounds" (p. 24).
With the methodological and theoretical questions considered,
Halpern then begins to sketch the lives of farm women in Ontario.
Filled with memoirs and anecdotes, Halpern delves into the
world of women's experience on the farm. She explores the
world of daily chores, both productive and reproductive, both
in the home and on the farm, that filled the days of farm
women. Halpern reveals the loneliness and isolation felt by
many farm women who waited all week for the ritual of Sunday
visiting. She surveys the fight for modern technology in the
home by women and the patrilineal inheritance practices that
often left single women destitute and homeless at the death
of fathers. The overarching theme to these stories is that
of gender inequality. Halpern argues that women did more than
just complain about this inequality--they challenged the patriarchal
structure of the farm in many ways. For some women challenging
the gender inequality on the farm meant refusing to do certain
chores; for others it meant divorce or refraining from marriage
at all. In extreme instances, some women saw murder as the
only way out. More common was the use of birth control by
farm women who sought to limit their labor by limiting the
number of children they had. When children grew up, many mothers
encouraged their daughters to go to urban centers in order
to seek out husbands who were not farmers or to pursue a career
outside of farming such as teaching or nursing.
These challenges to the patriarchal conventions of the farm
were generally executed on an individual level--until the
advent of the domestic science movement and the Women's Institute.
While farm women had access to gatherings such as sewing groups
and missionary circles, the purpose of these groups was largely
social. The domestic science movement and the Women's Institute,
however, "forcefully took up the farm women's cause,
and transformed it into an organized and widespread lobby
for change" (p. 51). The domestic science or home economics
movement sought to promote the elevation of the quality of
women's lives by providing them with a female-centred education.
This education integrated the "proper" central focus
of a woman's life, the home, with concepts of economics and
science. Its main promoter, Adelaide Hoodless, argued that
while it was commonly agreed that boys should receive manual
training, it was only logical that girls should also receive
a manual training but of a different kind. It is during this
discussion that the line between rural and urban becomes rather
fuzzy. Halpern traces the rise of the home economics movement
both in urban and rural communities, without distinguishing
fully between the two. Perhaps this was her intention. While
the home economics movement was first integrated into the
education system in Hamilton, the creation of the MacDonald
Institute at the Ontario Agriculture College in Guelph and
its subsequent popularity was the zenith of the movement's
The Women's Institute, which formed its first official branch
in Stoney Creek in 1897, had the promotion of home economics
as its sole purpose until the First World War. Meetings would
consist of various members giving papers such as "Proper
Food for Children," "The Science of Keeping Clean
in the Household," "The Care of Milk in Warm Weather,"
and "Economy and Household Waste," followed by discussion.
The provincial government supported the efforts of the WI
hoping that it would increase the productivity and social
conditions of the farm and, in turn, reduce female migration
to urban centers. The WI had exclusively female membership,
and emphasized the shared experience of women on the farm,
at times locking the doors at meetings to make sure that men
were physically excluded. The WI provided farm women with
a form of agency that, Halpern argues, challenged the patriarchal
inequality of agrarian life.
Halpern examines the fate of another farm women's organization,
the United Farm Women of Ontario. During the interbellum,
the UFWO, which grew out of the United Farmers of Ontario,
attempted to direct farm women's focus away from the ideals
of social feminism and towards those of equity feminism. Not
only was the UFWO unsuccessful in securing the same number
of long-term members as the WI but, realistically, most local
branches of the UFWO more closely resembled the WI than the
parent UFWO. When the question of integration with UFO men
became a key issue for the UFWO, it lost popularity among
farm women. Halpern argues that the quality of female separation
supported by the WI may not have appealed to the leadership
of the UFWO but it did appeal to the membership at large.
The failure of the UFWO in 1943 was not, argues Halpern, due
to the inherent conservatism of farm women but to its "commitment
to equity feminism which invited the detrimental repudiation
by UFO men, and undermined the self-sufficiency and values
of rural women" (p. 105).
Throughout the twenty years following the Second World War,
farms in Ontario were faced with substantial demographic changes,
new agricultural practices, and fast-developing technology,
all of which challenged the traditional role of women (and
men) on the farm. Perhaps most challenging to farm women was
the birth of the second-wave feminist movement, which "condemned
or ignored the experiences that shaped their lives" (p.
133). Halpern argues that despite all the upheaval, farm women
and the Women's Institute maintained their social feminist
agenda throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It was not until the
1970s that independent, activist, equity feminist organizations
began to emerge in rural Ontario.
The strength of Halpern's book is her ability to sketch
the lives of farm women in Ontario, perhaps the reason I found
her third chapter most rewarding. For those who viewed farm
women's lives as either too frenetic or too isolated for social
or political activity, Halpern's description should dispel
some of these myths. Clearly Halpern has challenged current
feminist theory. There will be some who readily support Halpern's
contention that farm women were feminist while others will
find her analysis strained and unworkable. Some will disagree
that non-equity feminism is feminism at all. Others will not
be convinced of the feminist self-identification of Ontario
farm women. Still others, like myself, will be uncomfortable
with the generalization that all WI farm women in Ontario
were social feminists, and might argue that certainly some
were feminists while others more closely resembled anti-feminists.
I applaud Halpern for taking a risk both in subject and in
theory. She has raised questions that feminists and non-feminists
alike ought to be discussing. Not only does the book ignite
dialogue on its theoretical claims it also serves as a valuable
contribution to the understanding of the daily lives of farm
women in Ontario.