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“The Proper Sphere” — Women during the Confederation Era (1840–1890)

Writing in 1856, Reverend Robert Sedgewick described what he believed to be the “proper sphere” of respectable women in Canadian society. Campaigning for political causes, holding public office, serving on juries, working in factories or similar activities would only coarsen women and draw them into competition with men. Instead, a woman’s place was in the home, where she could learn and apply the arts of housekeeping, comfort her husband, and raise and nurture her children. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the reality of women’s lives included increasing participation in the political and social world.

Separate Spheres

For religious authorities such as Sedgewick, the role of woman as man’s companion and as mother was divinely ordained. Other commentators supported this view, believing it strengthened the family unit — and, by extension, the fabric of society — during a period of significant change and upheaval. Men were intended to go out in public to contend with the stress of business and politics, while women maintained the domestic sanctuary that was home.

The Domestic Realm

A woman’s responsibilities as wife and mother took up most of her time. Marrying in her early twenties and bearing an average four to six children, a middle-class woman had little opportunity to engage in tasks other than housekeeping and caregiving, even if she had servants to help. It required both patience and skill for a woman to manage her family’s domestic needs and sustain its status.

Visits by relatives, friends or her husband’s business colleagues provided occasions to display her domestic accomplishments: her taste in fashion, literature and art, the cleanliness of her home, her selection of decorations and furnishings, and the elegance and quality of her table.

Activities Outside the Home

The concept of separate spheres was buttressed by laws that gave husbands virtually all of the authority and economic control in a marriage. This division of responsibilities, however, disguises the complexities of women’s experiences during the Confederation era.

Taking advantage of their position as caregivers and arbiters of morality, women did venture outside their homes to become leaders in church work and charitable societies.

To help alleviate the problems created by industrialization and urbanization, they established and staffed organizations which dealt with the plight of immigrants, orphans, unwed mothers, problem drinkers, the poor and the homeless. Some young women entered respectable skilled jobs as teachers and nurses. While higher education for women was unusual, a few women entered university in the “womanly” faculties of art and household science, as well as medicine and law. Many educated women believed they could better society by entering politics and campaigning for the female franchise.

The boundaries separating the spheres of middle-class women and men were further eroded when the husband could not support his family, due to illness, desertion, poor character or death. Faced with the need to provide for her family, a woman relied on her own skills, education and connections.

One solution that drew naturally upon a woman’s housekeeping talents was running a boarding house. Some women operated dressmaking or millinery businesses. Accomplished artists and writers could choose some combination of tutoring and production for the commercial market. In these and other pursuits, women created livelihoods and some measure of independence for themselves.