The myth of female equality in pioneer society : the Red River Colony as a test case
Lee, Linda Edith
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The Western suffrage movement of the early twentieth century argued that women deserved the vote because they had worked side-by-side with the men opening up the West. But, did women and men assume equal or even comparable roles in Western Canadian pioneer society? Using the Red River Settlement during the years 1812 to 1863 as an example of a Western pioneer society the answer to this question can be explored. A simple model is used to determine the level of women's involvement within any given aspect of society, from education to politics to economic activities. The model has four levels: non-involvement, commentator, participant, director. These stages are used to determine the degree of involvement only. The type of activity in which women participated and their level of involvement are both important when assessing the status of women within the community. In the Red River Colony two basic changes in women's roles occurred. In the unstable pre-1820 period women were active in political and economic decision-making. When the political situation stabilized and Red River began to imitate "civilized" European society, the roles of women changed. Women moved from a participatory level in politics and economics to a limited role in the more traditionally acceptable pursuits for women, such as social and educational activities. Therefore, the first change occurred in the type of roles in which women were involved. The second change was a change in degree. Once involved in education women increased their participation over time until in the 1840's and 1950's a few women reached the level of director. Women were also involved in the social functions of the community. However, the level of women's economic activity remained low after 1820, although there was continued participation in agricultural activities. There was no apparent increase in the economic or legal power of women over the years. Most women who acquired property did so when widowed. Social form restricted female participation in legal proceedings. Only in a society with a very small population, engaged in extreme political crisis did pioneer women assume powerful roles in the fundamental aspects of their society. When the community was able to develop along British settlement patterns the roles of women changed abruptly. From the 1820's to the 1860's the desire of the Red River Settlement to imitate "civilized" society restricted women's activities. Only in very limited areas did women increase their influence to a level comparable to men after 1820. Therefore, the belief in pioneer egaritarianism, although it served its persuasive purposes in the twentieth century suffrage movement, can only be viewed as a myth in the context of the Red River Colony.