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Women for a Better Canada

Women for a Better Canada: The Social and Moral Reform Work of the National Council of Women of Canada, 1900 - 1920

The Climate of Social and Moral Reform

By Krista Scott - 1997.

"The active participation of women in the field of moral and educational reform marks an epoch in the history of the race... In social and moral reform, as in every other department in modern life, the conditions of success demand the division of labour. Man alone is entirely incapable to meet the demands of legislation, restriction, investigation and authority in this field of work. Woman ought to have and must have her own sphere in which she is paramount... The field of moral and social reform is the true sphere for woman... To see the women of the nation united together, without distinction of nationality, language, creed or sect, in the great work of the moral reformation of the nation itself, is indeed an inspiring sight." - Mr. Little, Address of Welcome to the NCWC, 1901.

One of the major concerns occupying the early years of the twentieth century in North America and Western Europe was that of social and moral reform. Many material factors contributed to this concern: the prevalence of tuberculosis and other diseases as well as increased institutionalization of the medical profession; expanding awareness of unpleasant social conditions among the poor and working class due to industrialization and growing mass production; the presence of large numbers of people on the move from one country to another; and most importantly, the existence of a class of women who did not work in the formal labour market, who were often informed by the discourse of maternal feminism or "mothering the world", and who had a great deal of leisure time to devote to social causes. These women provided the much of the basis and momentum for the moral and social reform campaigns.

In this essay I will begin by explaining the character and mandate of one of the major Canadian organizations devoted in large part to social and moral reform, the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). I have examined the Yearbooks of this organization of the NCWC from 1900 to 1919/20, and I will look specifically at the work of two Standing Committees which were consistently active during that period, situating their concerns within the larger climate of social and moral reform issues. While I found the work of many Committees worthy of study, I had to limit myself to two: the Committee on Pernicious Literature/Objectionable Printed Matter, and the Committee on the Custodial Care of the Feeble-Minded/Mentally Deficient. Although my intention is mainly to examine the arguments and discourse of the NCWC around these two Committees, I also try to show that much of the work done by these women in the field of moral and social reform is informed by certain specific class and gender orientations. To do this I will employ a Marxist feminist analysis, the main thrust of which is that material conditions (i.e. social, economic, historical, political, etc.) inform the discourse and ideology which is applied by the NCWC to the issues. This eliminates the danger of universalizing the point of view of these women.

At times it is difficult not to criticize much of their activities and ideas harshly. However, it should be noted that many of these women genuinely believed in their good works, and so I will try not to indulge too much in casting a late-twentieth-century eye upon their words. It may be enough for the purposes of this essay to remember that the women of the NCWC, while certainly not homogeneous (there were multitudes of Local Councils and affiliated organizations), were in general situated in a particular race-class-gender configuration, i.e. white and middle- to upper-class women, which informed their discourse and actions around the work of social and moral reform.

The Vision of the National Council of Women of Canada

"I believe the most valuable feature of our Council is this very thing--the bringing about of an interested knowledge of the lives of our sisters; for when we know, we will think; and when we think, we will care; and when we care, we will work to bring about a happier condition for all." - Mrs. Gibbs, Response to the Address of Welcome, 1901.

The National Council of Women of Canada, formed in 1894, was an organization devoted in large part to the task of social and moral reform. A brief survey of their yearbooks from 1900 to 1920 will reveal that this group tackled a variety of subjects, from the care of infants to the care of the elderly, from Prohibition to prostitution, from professions for women to public health, from firearm safety to the feeble-minded to the fine arts. Over this twenty-year period, their reach expanded from a handful of local councils and auxiliaries to encompass a vast network of women's groups with various affiliations.

The official general mandate of the NCWC was essentially a conservative one. Made up mostly of upper- to middle-class women (evidenced by the 1900 session on "Immigration and the Servant Question") as well as women professionals such as Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, the NCWC saw its role as "the mouthpiece of the women of Canada in their expression of love and loyalty". In 1901, the NCWC rejected the idea that its constituents were "new women", i.e., part of the suffrage movement. Lady Taylor explains the NCWC mandate thus:

[Many] people still cling to the idea that any one who claims a wider sphere of action for woman than that of the home must necessarily be a "new woman". The National Council of Women are by no means "new women". On the contrary, they are eminently conservative; they like to know where they are going before they take even the first step in a new direction. But they do not believe that their duty towards humanity can be enclosed in the four walls of home. If the home is to be protected from evil, the women must make the surroundings of that home their care in ever widening measure.

The NCWC continued to avoid any connection to politics in 1903, and their vision of woman as reformer explicitly refuted the dirty world of politics:

[Woman] is able to bring about happier conditions and has sublime faith in herself as a reformer. This is the reason that she sometimes makes demands for things she is better without, perhaps. Every little while one bolder than her sisters goes up to the door of politics, but is gently and firmly refused admission. She is better out of it all. It is more than hinted at by those who have golden glimpses behind the scenes that the great ball-door of politics will never swing open to such clear-eyed, white-skirted individuals as the women of this country, until the men behind it have had time to get through with a spring house-cleaning which has been long delayed.

Thus their speeches on "woman as citizen" revolved around woman as moral and social reformer who was "the best of citizens" for being "a home-lover and a home-maker." On the other hand, the NCWC at this time acknowledged the existence of professional working women, and faced down criticism that working "unsexes a woman" with the stern rebuttal that "pure womanliness is not something we wear upon our person, something on the outside which may be brushed away by the material things with which we come in contact..." In addition, the 1904 Yearbook contains a speech on "Woman as Citizen", by Dr. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, which delineates the main arguments for woman suffrage.

While Dr. Stowe-Gullen's ideas and the cause of suffrage were not enthusiastically adopted by the NCWC, the Council later endorsed the acquisition of partial suffrage in their 1917/18 yearbook, stating emphatically that men's generosity with the franchise was due to the efforts of women's war work:

The courage, the self-forgetfulness, the persistency and the resourcefulness which the women of Canada have displayed in all forms of war works... have in the greater part of the Country swept away the last barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding which in the minds of our men stood between us and the franchise.

Endorsement notwithstanding, the NCWC maintained that the acquisition of the franchise would merely enable them to expand their work of moral and social reform; still they exhibit no interest in women entering formal politics. So, while the "women of the middle west [had] a very keen sense that [their] whole position had been altered", the "vision of the National Council as it [was] in its ideal... [was that] the voice of women could be effectually heard in all that wide range of interests outside the restricted field of politics..." (italics mine)

The early years of the Yearbook clearly show the values of the North American bourgeoisie: "[The] interests of the individual... were... subservient to the public good; personal restraint was the hallmark of respectability, and this idea of service to the public, or duty, became the great achievement of this class." Following the death of Queen Victoria, the 1901 yearbook records the Countess of Aberdeen's greeting which enthusiastically exhorts Canadian women to take up the torch of duty:

Our Mother Queen has left us with a great heritage, a heritage which the women of her Empire can especially claim. Amidst all the splendour of a unique position as the ruler of the greatest empire on earth, she has shown us that by far her greatest power lay in her life-long absolute devotion to duty--to duty to God, duty to country, duty to home. Before the power of that influence the nations of the earth have bowed in reverence; and let us, her children, now pray that that same spirit of quick response to every call of duty may become the distinguishing feature of both our national life and of the homes which make up that national life.

From the description of the Queen as "Mother" to the expressed dual duty of women to their "homes which make up that national life", it is clear that in 1901 the NCWC located its social efforts firmly within familial discourse. This continued into the 1912 Yearbook, which exhorted women to "look back to the years of mothering this country has enjoyed under the wise rule and judgment of a real old-fashioned mother--the late beloved Queen Victoria". While this address does not specify what the nature of "duty" (sometimes referred to in upper-case letters) actually is, it was a concept which must have been clear to the "children of the empire". Women's duty to their country was inseparable to their duty within the home; improvement of families equaled social and moral improvement. Social organization was imperial with a familial model and metaphor: the recently deceased Mother Queen ruled over the children of her home/empire and exhorted them to do their duty for the family/society.

The ideal of duty was strongly class-oriented: many of the aspects of society designated for social and moral reform were the physical and discursive spaces where the working-class, poor, immigrant and so-called "feeble-minded" resided. For example, the majority of the targets of the Committee on Pernicious Literature/Objectionable Printed Matter were forms of mass entertainment easily accessible to the lower classes, such as pulp novels, bawdy plays, and "Movies". Under the guise of philanthropy, the NCWC consciously or unconsciously sought to impose a middle- to upper-class order upon the "undesirables" of society. The 1901 Yearbook states: "If we realize that indeed we are a 'Nation', then we must bear in mind the old French motto 'Noblesse oblige'." Often class prejudice leaked through the discourse of care. Regarding the "servant question", the speaker lamented perhaps a bit too heartily: "Of course, nothing is so comfortable as a slave--if you can afford an overseer; but", she states resignedly, "slaves and domestic chattels are things of the past, and we must be prepared in ordinary life to sacrifice some measure of luxurious indulgence to the exigencies of a growing equality". While it is theoretically naive to depict the entire membership of the NCWC as a homogeneous class category, it is clear from the entries in the yearbook that the women who were most able to be heard appeared to share a common point of view and income bracket; the frequent use of "Woman" to express "women" is self-universalizing. The general tone of the discourse does not involve empowering disadvantaged groups; rather, it encourages the ladies to "enlighten" others as to their faults, and that problems are "due rather to lack of appreciation... of the possibility of removing existing evils than of any brutal or selfish indifference." Thus, all that was needed was that "the better way be pointed out, and the means of its accomplishment indicated.."

This is not to say that the women were mean-spirited in their efforts: on the contrary, it appears that many truly believed in the ideology of "mothering the world". The 1900 "Address on Patriotism" stated:

It is an old, but trite saying, that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world," but it is nonetheless true... Women have every power to influence for good or evil. It is women's love and women's hearts that makes men what they are. It is women who make men heroes; it is women who strengthen men to strike the blow for Queen and country... And if we do not do our duty, keep our literature pure, our homes lovely, and our men content, we will have lost the greatest opportunities that have ever been given to women in the world before.

From the turn-of-the century utopian discourse, it seems that the NCWC felt themselves to be on the threshold of a golden age.

In one hundred and fifty years, what has Canada done? A conquered race has been made happy and content; two nations, two religions, two creeds, which in former days were occasions for persecution... now live side by side on Canadian soil in peace... To-day on Canadian shores, we have every language, every nation, every climate, and every product, and we are all united under one flag, the Union Jack, the flag which has ever carried with it civilization and Christianity.

In effect, the nation was one big happy family, united under the wing of the late Mother Queen.

Eighteen years later, the connection of family woman to social and moral reformer had changed little. Mrs. J.R Peverett, in her welcoming address to the 1919 meeting, states: "Success in all that stands for good government, social betterment, and a happy and healthy home-life is a national asset and a common glory." Tellingly, the 1919 "Equal Moral Standard" session suggests a leaflet entitled "A Girl's Value to Her Country", which is actually a "facts of life" publication.

While much of the discourse around the familial focus for social reform went largely unchanged, it is clear that the Great War had a serious effect on the sensibilities of the women. The President's address of 1919 implicitly suggests a radically altered worldview, but also reflects a desire for renewed energies and vigor in the task of social reform.

We are living at this moment as never before in our existence. The tremendous experiences of the last four or more years have transformed the world, both as to good and evil. As individuals we are not the same... We have realized as never before our feebleness in the great world upheaval and yet we have learned that we can be kept quiet and forceful, each doing her part with absolute assurance of ultimate triumph. The eternal unseen verities have become to us realities...

The nineteenth-century bourgeois call to collective "duty", which launched the middle class community confidently into war in 1914, has given way to a rude push into the twentieth century which has left individuals stumbling about in the new and unfamiliar world order. The emphasis has shifted from the whole to the particular. While the President still sees each woman "doing her part" in the rapidly advancing century, it is no longer the uppercase "DUTY" of 1901, dispensed by the Mother Queen. The NCWC of this period admits that it is powerless in the face of certain kinds of technological developments which it had battled for years, such as "Movies", the "unwholesome atmosphere[s]" of which are ostensibly "too insidious to be suppressed..." With a resigned sigh, the NCWC admits: "The 'Movie' is here to stay, and we should bestir ourselves to make it an asset, not a liability, as a social factor."

The means by which the NCWC would achieve their ends were delineated in the 1901 Yearbook.

If then it is to this Association, as representing the enlightened sentiment of the women of Canada, that we are to look for those influences which are to bring about an amelioration of the conditions so inimical to the national health, whether social, moral or physical, we have to briefly enquire, how its energies and those of other noble women in our country are to be directed? We have to reply in several ways, viz.:-- (1) By personal example; (2) by giving a certain definite direction to education; (3) by influencing legislation; (4) by individual and combined efforts to investigate existing evils, and through organization, whether social or religious, to create a public sentiment, which will at once suggest reforms and guide to their practical realization.

At first glance the aim of "influencing legislation" appears to be a foray into formal politics, but closer reading reveals that this is not the case; in fact, the women of the NCWC sometimes seem to us astonishingly naive about the political process, and their sentiments reveal once again their utopianism:

Were Eden or Paradise regained, laws for men would be unnecessary, for then love would be law and law love. Were the women of Canada inspired by such a law, factory acts, restriction of child labour and labour unions would be as useless and unnecessary as were rules of honour for the Knights of King Arthur's fabled "Table Round", or labour laws for the "Land of the Lotus Eaters".

It is not clear whether or not the NCWC truly believed in this rhetoric. To a postmodernist of the late twentieth century it seems silly and politically innocent. However, in the early 1900s, this discourse was part of the larger dominant ideology around a utopian society, which fueled the movement towards social and moral reform. It was with this vision in mind that many of the NCWC's Members looked towards their works as bringing in a new golden age.

Pernicious Literature/Objectionable Printed Matter

"The widespread and insidious character of the evil which threatens the homes of our people in the circulation of pernicious reading matter, pictures and the like, makes the work of this Committee particularly important... many thousands of parents have been put on their guard regarding this matter." - Miss Fitzgibbon, "Report of the Committee on Pernicious Literature", 1900.

The problem of "pernicious literature", later revised in 1903 to the problem of "objectionable printed matter", and expanded in 1910 to include the problem of "Movies", was far-reaching. While no examples of this material are provided in the text, the Standing Committee on Pernicious Literature in 1900 outlines it as including "indecent advertisements and impure circulars", "degrading reading matter", and "injurious literature" in the form of pulp novels. Although the Committee admits in the case of the pulp novels, which are "purchased by young girls employed in small shops and read during unoccupied hours", that "[these] works are not in all cases absolutely definite in their suggestions of evil, but [that] they convey such a distorted view of life that they must exert a deteriorating influence on the minds and lives of readers." In this case, it seems that the Committee objects less to the "evil" in the novels and more to the working-class nature of the pursuit. In a similar vein, in 1901 the Committee also attacked "serial stories in newspapers" as well as advertisements on "[paper] wrappers for cigarettes and chewing gum, products which were likely consumed largely by the working classes.

At first glance it would seem that the Committee was involved in preventing pornography. However, after a closer reading, the bulk of the material which the Committee wished to prevent does not appear to be of this nature. In fact, in 1902 the Committee confessed: "As to actual immoral literature, it seems very hard to get any positive knowledge," although in the 1919/20 Yearbook there were reports of "a dangerous 'sex-story magazine' coming into Canada". In other words, the Committee was generally not dealing with illicit materials of a sexual nature which would contravene laws which were already in place. What, then, constituted "pernicious literature"? The NCWC in 1902 defined it as that which "debases the taste, gives false views of life and puts wrong ideals before youthful minds." Since the Committee states clearly that "the law cannot forbid [it]", and that "the country is flooded with such", we can conclude that the majority of this so-called pernicious literature must have been material which was not obscene or pornographic but simply cheaply manufactured, widely available literature or illustrations, probably in the form of pulp novels, romance magazines, adventure stories, picture post-cards, and the like. In 1903 the Committee lamented: "Each year the cheap, sensational book seems to gain popularity... Think how the hearts of thousands can be thus invaded!" The 1902 Committee indicated that "it is entirely in the hands of fathers and mothers to destroy the demand for that class of reading by leading the taste of their children to purer and more ennobling works." (italics mine) This statement makes the agenda very clear: the materials considered pernicious are really those associated with mass consumption by lower classes, and that simple removal from a child's possession is not enough; the very tastes of the child must be manipulated so that they do not lean towards literary banality and the resulting moral doom. The 1903 report of the Committee makes the connection between taste, class and progress: "Thus may the habit of good reading be cultivated in the young, and it is the power of habit to give man a new nature, that renders possible all progress in the race, as well as in the individual." After all, "[reading] has much to do with character; therefore we shall strive to give the young healthy reading matter, necessary to develop a strong mental and moral life!" The 1905 Report adds:

"Pernicious literature is one of the greatest menaces to our modern civilization... [This] reading... simply saps all noble principles and besots the youthful mind with deplorable ideals, ideals upon which characters are moulded, as a result, producing criminals instead of good citizens.

[Statistics] show that a great part of the criminality of youth has been inculcated by just such literature as we are trying to suppress.

Should a child be so misguided as to indulge in a lower-class pastime, s/he would not be able to participate in the forward evolution of humankind, and would by inference fall by the wayside of progress, or worse, become a degenerate of some kind or another. In 1903 the Committee changed the word "Pernicious" to "Objectionable", which also alters the nature of the problem. Something labeled "pernicious" can be seen as objectively so, whereas in the case of "objectionable", there must be someone to object to it. Thus unwittingly the NCWC laid bare its discursive relationship to the "problem": that which was objectionable was so to them in their particular class/gender configuration.

In 1904 objectionable matter of a more sinister character appeared: advertisements for employment intended to defraud young women. Here we find increasing paranoia around the "white slave trade". Whether or not an organized system of female recruitment ever existed is somewhat dubious, but nevertheless it was a matter which struck fear into the hearts of mothers everywhere. The "plot to procure young girls for immoral purposes" led to the NCWC forming a Committee specifically on White Slave Traffic (which in 1911 became the Committee for Equal Moral Standard and Prevention of Traffic in Women), which reported in 1905 their:

frustration by every means in our power of the organized system to ensnare young girls of every class and degree, creed and colour, to their destruction, known as the White Slave Traffic, of which women are the sole victims... This organization has worked so insidiously by means of false advertisements and individual agencies, that numberless victims have been lured from their homes, either returning to them wrecked in mind and body, or as much lost to their families as if death had claimed them.

The euphemistic language surrounding this problem makes it unclear exactly what happens to the girls who are lured from their homes. While certainly there were scam artists who preyed on the naive and trusting, as there are today, it is not apparent that there was an organized international system of recruitment of women into prostitution or other evils as the NCWC suggests.

In 1910 the Committee focused its disapproval upon new forms of mass entertainment: Sunday funnies and "moving picture shows". It stated triumphantly:

We feel quite confident that we may truly take to ourselves credit for the partial annihilation of the objectionable Sunday Supplement purported to be published for our children, for we have continuously placed ourselves on record as disapproving of these feeders to disobedience and disrespect, and several of our papers have discontinued the supply.

It is rather telling that in the same report the Committee adds that it has been instrumental in banning the Maritime publication entitled "Free Speech". However, by 1911, the Committee was more conciliatory towards comics in newspapers and admitted to "have found this [suppression] impracticable and undesirable, as the comic sheet responds to a real demand on the part of the public, both young and old." Nevertheless, it appears that the Committee continued its efforts to suppress the objectionable Sunday funnies, but in 1919/20 reports defeat: "Strenuous efforts made to suppress the objectionable comic section of newspapers were in vain."

In the area of "moving picture shows", the Committee decided to make an investigation, such that "[besides] reporting on the pictures, the ladies were asked to note other features of the shows, the character and behaviour of the audiences, proportionate number of children present... in fact, all the attendant conditions." While the overall report was positive, there were some concerns:

It is regrettable that a number were of the sensational type, scenes of violence and crime being portrayed in four or five. In several the pictures were vulgar, but in not one case was anything of an obscene nature reported.

In some of these places, after the pictures were shown, song and dance performances and dialogues were put on, and these seem to be the most objectionable features. One lady described those she saw as "decidedly vulgar and occasionally suggestive"... In two or three of these vaudevilles children of tender years took part.

In the case of moving pictures, the women objected less to the actual subject matter and more to the environment within the theatre: vaudeville, slapstick and the presence of "unhygienic conditions". By 1911, due to the efforts of the National Convener of the Committee, a by-law was tested in Montreal that prohibited "vaudeville at moving picture shows unless [the] shows [took] out a heavy theatrical license." The rationale for this was that "the vaudeville, being necessarily cheap, is coarse and inartistic, if not intensely vulgar..." It was at this time that the Committee also suggested the appointment of a Board of Censors, who would survey new moving pictures. In 1912, the Committee pointed out that the dim lighting of theatres was a breeding ground for inappropriate activities, as it had been found that "the halls were used as meeting places, at which improper appointments were conveniently made." Despite these objections, the 1913 Committee recommended the use of moving pictures as instructional tools in "day and Sunday schools".

In 1914, with war at the doorstep, the NCWC began to see mass publication in a new light: to promote the cause of patriotism and the British Empire.

Educationalists have been slow to realize the important part moving pictures may be made to play in the school curriculum. In this connection your Convenor would draw your attention to the patriotic scheme of... arranging for Imperial education in schools by means of picture films, "Action Pictures of the British Empire", an Imperial exchange with the schools in all parts of the British Empire.

In emphasizing the point... that only by bringing good books within the reach of all can we meet satisfactorily this problem of repressing objectionable literature, your Convenor would draw attention to "Stories of the British Empire"...A volume designed to create enthusiasm for the Empire in the breasts of Canadian boys and girls, also intended to give some of the moral values of our history and lead the readers to good citizenship.

Mass appeal, realized the NCWC, could be harnessed and put to use. The 1915 Yearbook reports excitedly upon the increased production in continuing "imperial education in the schools of the Empire". They also discovered in 1915 that "a decrease in the circulation of cheap literature has followed the increase in the number of moving picture shows", which, while cause for celebration on the printed front, led to a call for increased vigilance of the film Censorship board. By 1917, the NCWC was resigned to the permanent residency of the "Movie", and proposed that if "the moving pictures were under the Educational Department of the Provincial Governments and not commercial enterprises it would be much better: then they would be of great educational value to the nation." Despite misgivings, the Great War appeared from these accounts to have led to the appropriation of mass culture to serve the Empire's "educational" machine in an unprecedented manner. In 1919/20, fresh from wartime triumph, the Committee reports excitedly: "The possibilities of moving pictures are vast, and it is predicted that they will become, when the present objectionable features are eliminated, the most potent of all educational factors."

While the NCWC appears to have made peace with many of its bugbears in the area of objectionable printed matter by 1920, it also seems to have discovered new ones related once again to class as well as race fears. The final resolution of the final report passed reads:

"This committee respectfully suggests that the National Council of Women do petition the Government that no paper in a foreign language be allowed to be published in our Dominion, unless there is a parallel column in one of the two official languages."

The utopian, multilinguistic society envisioned by the NCWC in 1900, where "on Canadian shores, we have every language, every nation, every climate, and every product, and we are all united under one flag," has unfortunately given way to xenophobia of "foreigners" and cynicism among these women regarding Canada's class and race relations.

Thus it would seem that despite the most well-intentioned efforts at reform by the NCWC, they were ultimately defeated in large part by the consumption power of the working classes, who demonstrated a taste for that which the NCWC deemed objectionable. After all, we still have the "Movie" and the Sunday funnies, pulp novels and cartoons on gum wrappers, more cheap and indecent than ever. However, their work was not entirely in vain, for much of their discourse around bettering the world through elimination of objectionable matter survived into the "family values" campaign of the Republicans in the 1990s, as well as antipornography movements. Their links between objectionable viewing and criminal tendencies also survive in the TV violence debate. It's too easy to dismiss this Committee as a bunch of rich old biddies who didn't want anyone to have any fun. It's more interesting to view their work as an intersection of gender and class. Their particular gender orientation had socialized them as the pedestal-people of purity, who found their "correct" sphere in the area of moral and social reform. Their particular class orientation was that of middle- to upper-class women who did not work in the labour market, and who did not look forward to bawdy entertainment for relaxation after the factory had closed, or in moments stolen away from shop work by indulging in the latest romance. In addition, the prevailing values of the bourgeoisie led the NCWC to suspect that leisure activities for workers would necessarily be of an immoral nature. At any rate, the Committee, because of its gender-class orientation, probably believed in the rhetoric of social elevation through works of art, and heeded not the "pearls before swine" adage. Unfortunately, as is often the case, class-based consumption habits won the day.

Custodial Care of Feeble-Minded/Mentally Deficient Women

"One of the members of the National Council of Women... was informed that two townships are overrun by feeble-minded, imbecile persons, the result of intermarriage with those similarly afflicted, thus increasing this unfortunate class of irresponsibles." - Mrs. Evans, "Report of the Committee on the Custodial Care of Feeble-Minded Women", 1901.

One of the activities which occupied a great deal of the energies of social and moral reformers as well as the eugenicists of the day was the custodial care of the feeble-minded., and in fact, the NCWC was "the first organized group to take up the campaign for more effective segregation of the feeble-minded." The Committee on the Custodial Care of Feeble-Minded Women in 1901 attempted to delineate "feeble-mindedness" thus:

Perhaps there are few subjects more difficult to define than "what constitutes a feeble-minded person"... [There] is a class between the sane, active, useful citizen, and [the insane]..., from whom no provision has been made: they are a mixture of sanity and insanity... The majority are unable to protect themselves from harm; in fact, many have vicious tendencies, and as to women they are often a prey to evil influences and have not enough mental or moral strength of character to withstand temptation.

As Angus McLaren notes in his book Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada 1885-1945, what was considered feeble-mindedness was often representative of "[deviant] behaviour--as defined by white, middle-class, Protestant professionals--and not any proof of genetic failure..." In addition, "[in] place of medical diagnoses the eugenic boards relied on the social criteria of what represented 'normal' morality, sexuality, and work habits to classify their charges." For these reasons, as well as my own 1990s sensibilities, the term "feeble-minded" is used advisedly in this essay, to represent the accepted terminology of the NCWC and dominant social discourse at the time period studied; by using it I do not signify my acceptance of the NCWC's definition or usage.

Congruent to McLaren's point about 'normal' sexuality, often prostitutes or unwed mothers were ipso facto seen as feeble-minded (although the 1904 report asserted confidently that doctors in institutions "had no difficulty" in "distinguishing this class [the feeble-minded] from the ordinary immoral woman"). The Kingston contingent of the Committee reported in 1901 that "nine illegitimate maternity cases out of ten are attributable to the weak-minded condition of the mothers." Another group, the Haven and Prison Group Mission, reporting on the admission of maternity cases, noted with great detail:

[In the past year] we have admitted 72 maternity cases. Of these, at least 40 were weak-minded, not imbecile, but showing decidedly unbalanced and warped mentality. Some evince this weakness by stupidity, others by excessive irritability of temper, others by lack of any power of concentration, and other by such weakness of will as revealed inability, both mental and moral, to protect themselves; and seven were positive imbeciles.

One might speculate that the bulk of the women who made it to the Haven were, prior to their admission and subsequent diagnosis, of a certain class and perhaps linguistic/racial/ethnic orientation. In other words, the girls who would end up on the Haven's doorstep were likely there because they lacked a familial support system to hide and care for their "shameful" pregnancy, were poor, were isolated by language or culture (perhaps being young immigrant domestics or farm help), or had been ostracized from whatever home situation they had been in.

The parental tone of social and moral reform, as exemplified in the late Mother Queen Victoria, was evident in the discourse around care for feeble-minded women. The 1901 Yearbook cites an extract from an address to the Convention of Correction and Charities:

...[Toward] this vast dependent multitude, a fatherly or motherly care is the just attitude of the State. Their [the feeble-minded] lives should be guarded and governed, their work and play, their food and clothes, their business and their leisure, should all be chosen for them. They should be guided, directed, controlled. The State should say to each of them:--"My child, your life has been one succession of failures, you cannot feed and clothe yourself honestly, you cannot control your appetites and passions. Left to yourself you are not only useless, but mischievous... You are incurable, a degenerate, a being unfit for free, social life. Henceforth I shall care for you, I will feed and clothe you, and give you a reasonably comfortable life. In return you will do the work I set out for you and you will abstain from interfering with your neighbour to his detriment.

The feeble-minded as a group were regarded as an entity to be controlled and segregated, under the guise of the care of a loving parent. They were viewed as potential dangers to society, and it was clear that, left to their own devices, they would surely wreak social destruction. Therefore, in the manner of a kindly teacher or parent separating children into "slow learners", "bright", or "average", it was necessary to classify, organize and separate the feeble-minded into their particular categories and sites of segregation. And what a large group they were! Though of course there existed genuinely mentally or developmentally disabled individuals, there was many a place for people who were considered feeble-minded for having engaged in "antisocial" or "abnormal" activities:

If you are an incorrigible thief, here is a factory you shall work in; if you are an idiot, or an imbecile, here is a village of the simple, a happy and useful place for you; if you are an epileptic, a chronic insane person, an inebriate, a semi-weak-minded mother of numerous illegitimate children, an habitual pauper, whatever your special form of dependency, if it be final, incurable, permanent, here is a place, a home, a labour house, an asylum for you.

It is apparent that many of the individuals falling under the category of feeble-mindedness are not the ones who would be socially segregated today, and that there is a frequently a clear class division between who is deemed feeble-minded and who is not. Drunks who inhabited the streets and slums would be considered candidates for the labour house, but it is likely that the upper-class alcoholic, chronic snuff taker, or opium smoker would be. In fact, when the latter individuals are discovered, they are regarded as having unwittingly fallen into the clutches of an evil influence, rather than themselves suffering from any inherent ailment. Emily Murphy, in her book about drug use entitled The Black Candle, points out: "[Among] us there are girls and glorious lads who, without any obliquity in themselves, have become victims to the thrall of opiates... " (italics mine) In the same vein, the unwed mothers who are admitted into the ranks of the feeble-minded are not the unwed mothers of the middle- to upper-class, who are either quietly married off or shipped out to a relative in the country to experience their pregnancy and birth in social isolation from gossip. Thus, the NCWC, which situated itself in regard to class by asking itself, "How... can [we] who live in districts far removed from the hum of factory wheels and the din of machinery come into touch with the thousands of wage earners, who dwell in crowded tenement houses...?" reveals that the individuals designated feeble-minded are overwhelmingly representative of lower-class situations, whether urban or rural poor, and perhaps more of the latter. The Toronto report of 1912 noted that "its defective inmates are largely sent from rural districts."

Along with the NCWC's discourse on "mothering the world" comes an expectation of a parent-child relationship between certain classes, which in fact would be welcomed by the feeble-minded, as quoted by one unwed mother: "'Oh, take me in, as I am unable to protect myself from harm.'" This point of view is congruent with the missionary/colonial mentality which was prevalent at this time among the middle- to upper-classes of the British Empire: that of a parent (State, Empire, Christian, etc.) doing things for the child's (feeble-minded's, colonized country's, heathen's) own good. In an unrelated (but not dissimilar) resolution, it was moved regarding

the matter of the gross immoralities which are practiced among the Indians... during their annual dances... [to] urge the Government to take whatever steps may seem advisable to strengthen the hands of the Government Agents and others, so as to bring about an abandonment of these dances, which interfere with the progress of the Indians towards morality and civilization.

There is a subtle but important relationship between discourse around the State as a parent and the Empire as a colonizer. In the case of the "Indians", government power was presumably employed "for their own good". Likewise are the feeble-minded controlled and segregated "for their own good".

The main problem with the feeble-minded, according to the NCWC and eugenicists of the day, was in their reproduction. To understand this point before I expand on it, I must extrapolate a bit. This was a time when every individual action for good or evil was thought to affect the entire progress of the (white Anglo-Saxon) race. Although we tend to associate the practice and rhetoric of eugenics with the Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s, much of the discursive groundwork had already been laid in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The idea of "mothering the world" had a rather literal meaning: it was thought that a woman's familial actions, from reproduction to her choice of a child's reading matter, would have repercussions for the larger race. Of course, it is impossible to talk about "race progress" without speaking of racism. Although outwardly the NCWC and others lauded their happy country that embraced all nations, the reality was that "race progress" meant the cultivation of white, Imperial, Anglo-Saxon culture, and the control of immigration and immigrants as well as Canadian citizens who did not share the discursively dominant background or class affiliation. "Other" races were not discursively constructed in the same manner as today; rather, even the working-class British immigrant or French-Canadian was thought to be of another race. And, while many nations may have been "united" by the Union Jack, as well as recruited for the Empire's wars, the inhabitants of those nations were still firmly part of a colonialist hierarchy, based on race, class and historical factors, which established their correct social place. Not surprisingly, the white middle- to upper-class Anglo-Saxon Protestant was at the top.

"Race progress" was under attack from a variety of fronts. Emily Murphy, in The Black Candle, argued that drug use was a problem which led not only to "educated gentlewomen... consorting with the lowest classes of yellow and black men" (this accusation is backed up with photographs of men of colour lounging on beds with fellow white women opium smokers), but that the impotence and amenorrhea which resulted from drug abuse would lead to a lower birthrate among white Anglo-Saxons. As a result, "these prolific Germans, with the equally prolific Russians, and the still more fertile yellow races, will wrest the leadership of the world from the British. Wise folk ought to think about these things for a while." And, with a note of paranoia:

"Chinamen, Negroes and Jews thrive by reasons of the [drug] traffic... One becomes especially disquieted--almost terrified--in the face of these things, for it sometimes seems as if the white race lacks both the physical and moral stamina to protect itself, and that maybe the black and yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy.

Murphy's associations of "Chinamen, Negroes and Jews" (who seem to be the universal scapegoats) with the drug trade, as well as her lurid stories of drug use and "reefer madness" ("Persons using [marijuana] smoke the dried leaves of this plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane.") have the discursive effect of depicting the white Anglo-Saxons ("us") as under attack from "foreign" invaders of all kinds ("them"). In fact, Murphy often refers to herself, the State, and others of the same background as "Saxon". The metaphoric implication is that "we" are not only at war with drugs, but also with the legendary fertility of "them", who ensnare "us" with drugs to sap "our" racial energy and progress.

Another area which presented a threat to "race progress" was that of purportedly declining Anglo-Saxon birth rates. Havelock Ellis, in his book The Task of Social Hygiene, presents some thoughts on the consequences of decreasing fertility:

[The] fertility of the old native-born American population of mainly Anglo-Saxon origin is found to be lower than that of France This element, therefore, is rapidly dwindling away in the United States. The general level of the birth-rate is maintained by the foreign immigrants, who in many States... constitute the majority of the population... Among these immigrants the Anglo-Saxon element is now very small... The racial, and it is probable, the psychological characteristics of the people of the United States are thus beginning to undergo, not merely modification, but, it may almost be said, a revolution. If, as we may well believe, the influence of the original North-European racial elements--Anglo-Saxon, Dutch and French--still continues to persist in the United States, it can only be the influence of a small aristocracy, maintained by intellect and character.

Wherever are gathered together an exceedingly fine race of people, the flower of the race, individuals of the highest mental and moral distinction, there the birth-rate falls steadily. Vice or virtue alike avails nothing in this field; with high civilization fertility inevitably diminishes.

Ellis makes it clear that Anglo-Saxon and middle- to upper-class also means "better", intellectually, morally and physically, and that the proliferation of the Anglo-Saxons would lead to "civilization" and progress (as surely the "Indians" of the above example appreciated). He is optimistic about the future of the Anglo-Saxons through the use of "Good Breeding". "If the ideal of quantity is left to us, why not seek the ideal of quality?... [Are] we not free to seek that our children, though few, should not be at all events fit, the finest, alike in physical and psychical constitution, that the world has seen?"

This brings us to the rhetoric of eugenics, which advocated for "race progress" not only by "Good Breeding" but also of prohibiting the procreation of those deemed unfit. Ellis writes:

[Our] children, the future race, the torch-bearers of civilization for succeeding ages, are not the mere result of chance or Providence, but that, in a very real sense, it is within our power to mould them, that the salvation or damnation of many future generations lies in our hands since it depends on our wise and sane choice of a mate.

In fact, Ellis envisioned "the time... when eugenic care for the race may become a religion... At this point social hygiene becomes one with the hygiene of the soul." This sentiment leads us right back to the work of the moral and social reformers who sought "race progress" as a larger goal, through the segregation and control of the feeble-minded in their care.

The primary objectives of the Committee for Custodial Care of Feeble-Minded Women were threefold: through "isolation and protection", to prevent women of childbearing age from entering into sexual relations of any kind, to prevent reproduction by feeble-minded women, and to prevent the feeble-minded from mixing with the "normal" population. These objectives were formulated with one larger goal in mind: negative eugenics through reproductive control of feeble-minded women, and thus removal of inhibitions to "race progress". According to one Dr. Tredgold in the 1913 Report, "90 per cent of the mental deficiency is inherited, and only 10 per cent is due to adverse circumstances and environment." And, reported the 1915 Committee: "Contagious diseases have long been controlled by legislation, but this more deadly, transmittable disease of feeble-mindedness is still uncontrolled."

Thus the feeble-minded, besides being largely represented among the lower classes, in fact also constituted a class of their own in the stratified society of the early 1900s. This class was ostensibly self-perpetuating as well as simultaneously self-destructive and morbidly expansive, which according to many made it a threat to other "normal" classes. For feeble-minded women, class and gender intersected to isolate them in a particular way: they were segregated and their reproduction controlled both because of their alleged mental deficiency as well as their capacity for bearing children. According to experts, not only would feeble-minded women have childbearing forced upon them if left to their own devices, they would actively seek it out, for frequently they were thought to have "immoral tendencies"; "precocious sex interests and practices are symptoms of feeble-mindedness". As a result, went the logic, they would not only cause problems in the present, but also in the future with their guaranteed degenerate progeny, who would multiply and eventually overrun decent society.

The President of the NCWC states in 1905: "The care of feeble-minded women of child-bearing age is good political economy." In other words, the NCWC felt that through their work of segregation and reproductive control, they were contributing to the betterment of future generations. Much of this was done by segregating feeble-minded women of childbearing age within institutions such as asylums and jails, but in fact the Ontario government was the first to actually build cottage compounds specifically designated for this group of women. The 1905 Convener of the Committee exhorts the "various Provinces to establish and maintain a 'Home' where feeble-minded women of child-bearing age might be humanely treated, and the increase of their numbers effectively decreased." After all, asked the Council of 1912, "[is] it not immeasurably more patriotic to permanently care for the poor feeble-minded than to curse them and the future race by leaving them at large to be the prey of the evil and the breeders of misery?" In 1912, at the Child Welfare Exhibition, the Montreal Local Council took great pains to illustrate, with the aid of charts, the difference between a "superior" family and a "defective" family. Their instructional efforts are recorded as such:

a) Feeble-mindedness is hereditary.

b) This condition is not swamped by intermarriage; the abnormal with the normal. On the contrary, the abnormal vitiates the normal.

c) Feeble-mindedness is frequently associated with alcoholism, tuberculosis, epilepsy, prostitution, criminal tendencies, and certain types of insanity.

d) It is the cause rather than the effect of such evils.

e) Even the normal children of feeble-minded parents should not have children.

f) Feeble-minded people have larger families than normal people.

According to this, feeble-minded women were a grave threat not only because of their particular affliction, but because of their alleged fecundity in spreading their feeble-mindedness. In 1915 the Report stated authoritatively: "The normal family in the United States averages 4 [children] while that of degenerate parents averages 7.3." In the Montreal directive, feeble-mindedness is a condition which exists ontologically prior to the subject's entry into the social sphere; this assertion allowed agencies such as the NCWC to overlook the discursive creation of what constituted feeble-minded; the particular class/educational orientation and the fact that undesirable social behaviours were not always caused by feeble-mindedness (as modern-day wife abusers are not dismissed as madmen but known to be individuals shaped by society's notions about dominance and power) but rather by material economic, social and political conditions. Positing feeble-mindedness as existing outside of material relations erases the subjectivity of the women designated as such, and makes invisible the power dynamics inherent in the NCWC's "care". Feeble-minded women are merely objects to be moved about as agencies desire; they are like the "Gremlins" characters of the 1980s: pleasant as pets, but if not sufficiently supervised, prone to uncontrollable and explosive multiplication with negative consequences.

In 1913, the Committee changed its name to the Care of the Mentally Deficient. It was thought that this would be a kinder term, and some even suggested that "backward" would be preferable. At any rate, the name change stood. In 1914, Ontario passed an "Auxiliary Classes Act", which moved many "mentally deficient" children out of institutions and into classes of instruction. Lest one think that the government was relaxing its standards regarding the mentally deficient, the 1914 Report also notes that: "We have... urged our Local Councils to try to obtain special classes for Backward Children... not because we think these a sufficiency, but because... they might be a first step towards Classification and Segregation". In other words, these classes would serve less as tools of instruction and more as an efficient method for separating and codifying the mentally deficient. As well, these classes "[prevent] the contamination of the normal child". Hopefully, through these measures, asserted the West Algoma Local Council in 1915, "[we] may largely remove (by segregation) one of the most serious taints of our civilization."

With the ongoing war, concern over the proliferation of the feeble-minded increased. Although sterilization was not as yet an option, receiving a negative endorsement from a doctor present in 1915, the Report was nevertheless rather nervous about the loss of "normal" men: "Maurice Maeterlinck has written, 'This European war is a monstrous sort of selection of the unfittest for the ruin of the species.' Is it not then more than ordinarily necessary, now, that the mentally unfit should be prevented from increasing their numbers?" Anticipating the formation of a Royal Commission on the problem, the NCWC presented to and circulated among Members of Parliament ten thousand copies of a statement entitled "Lovest Thou Thy Land?". Some excerpts:

Thousands of Canada's best are being slaughtered on European battlefields. Our duty to our country demands conservation of the life at home. The feeble-minded in our midst are therefore a greater menace than ever. We have learned certain facts regarding the problem of the feeble-minded, but we need to know much more...

In New York a clearing house for mental defectives has been established. From January 1st, 1913, to February 28th, 1914, 3,300 of suspected mental defects examined... 474 were women over 16 years of age...

More than half the women of child-bearing age are so high a grade mentally that their defectiveness was for a long time unsuspected.

Moral Diagnosis--132 declared to have had immoral relations. 50 suspected of immoral relations. 37 unmistakably afflicted with venereal disease. 135 known illegitimate offspring. Average mental age of mothers of illegitimate children: 9 years.

The report declares, "It would be futile to indicate item by item what these defective women have cost the community"...

..."The prime essential in the solution of the problem of the feeble-minded is... the absolute segregation of all mental defectives, especially during the years of their capacity for reproduction..."

Overall conclusion: "Good Breeding" stock in Canada was decreasing due to the war, which made the idea of reproduction of the feeble minded almost more repugnant as the final insult to "race progress" (A rather facetious and slightly offensive thought occurs: perhaps they could have killed two birds with one stone and sent the feeble-minded over to fight?). The tone of the 1917 Report grows more urgent:

The time has gone by for mincing matters. Our subject is not a pleasant one, but its menace is greater than ever before, therefore we must be bold to combat it. Its disastrous effects have been publicly stated, and emphasized by actual facts... sixty per cent of prostitutes are feeble-minded, and that these women are almost always carriers of disease; that every section of our land is infected with it... Only one remedy can cope with this situation--the permanent segregation of feeble-minded people... "If there were a real combine of doctors, clergy, educationists and THINKING WOMEN, these diseases might be stamped out"...

The Local Council of Winnepeg suggest... that marriage of feeble-minded persons might be prohibited;...[and] that all feeble-minded people should be permanently segregated; and that registration be compulsory.

The final Yearbook of 1919/20 has an extensive section on this matter, owing in part to the publication of the first edition of the quarterly Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene. The Report clearly classifies mental deficiency as "an acute national problem of the first importance". The war's effects on the nature of the problem were visible and led to intensified attention: not only had "Good Breeding" stock in the form of soldiers been depleted, but "[the] strict physical examination of applicants for national service in the past four years [had] brought defects to public notice..."

The NCWC concluded its twenty-year survey of the feeble-minded with a call to education:

Bend every scrap of energy you possess, all the weight you can bring to bear, but get them so that such children my be classified and those incapable of book learning may be given some "training of the sensory powers, in manual and vocational work." Thus, and thus only, will their educational problems be solved. There will still remain the problem of permanent care for those, who, while able to earn a living are in reality most dangerous, because they are more likely than the lower type of feeble-minded to marry and reproduce their kind.

Education of the feeble-minded... is difficult, but not hopeless, and responsibility does not end there.

It does not require much creativity to imagine where responsibility did eventually end. Before the courts in 1996 is a suit involving a disabled woman who, like many of her fellow institutional inmates, was forcibly sterilized. Up until the late 1970s, forced sterilization was practiced in Ontario. Likely the practice has its roots in early 20th-century discourse such as this.

It is interesting that a woman's organization would take up the cause of eugenics in its care of the feeble-minded, for often feminists had been accused of sabotaging "race progress" through birth control. However, since the NCWC had a self-stated "conservative" mandate, they were more in line with the thoughts of the leading eugenicists of the day. After all, the "purported surges in venereal disease, tuberculosis, alcoholism, divorce, and labour unrest were pointed to by the nervous as evidence of the erosion of traditional values." The NCWC, concerned with all of these areas, was a perfect candidate for the endorsement of the eugenic ideal of "race progress". In addition, as previously stated, it was easier to attribute social problems to mentally deficient individuals than to closely examine material social and economic conditions of malnutrition, poverty, isolation or overcrowding, disease, illiteracy, etc. The focus on "blaming the victim" allowed the NCWC to dissect the problem without fear of the spotlight being turned onto their responsibility. Since the middle- and upper-classes benefited greatly from the pleasant conditions which capitalism and industrialization had created for them, why should they critique the system? Thus, once again we can see how the concerns of the NCWC around the care of the feeble-minded were informed not only by the discourse of "race progress", but also by their class context.


"We see everywhere the most unprecedented activity in the combination of capital with the accompanying gambling in stocks... What, therefore, appears to be the difficulty underlying this problem of [sweat shop evils]? I think all must agree that primarily it is a moral one." - Dr. Bryce, "Disinfection of Home-Made Clothing", 1901.

The social and moral reform efforts of the NCWC encompassed many areas. But all had one underlying theme: that problems, whether legal, economic, social, political, domestic, labour, sanitary, etc., could generally all be solved through betterment of the moral and social climate. This betterment would not only affect the microsphere with improved social and familial relations (and eugenically better children), but also the macrosphere and the "future of the race".

From the Yearbooks alone, it is not clear how great an influence the NCWC eventually had. We know that much of their "pernicious literature" campaign was for naught, but their thoughts on the feeble-minded appear to have been better received. Once again, this is probably due to material conditions. The campaign against "objectionable matter" likely stalled because moral outrage was drowned out by mass appeal and consumer power. The large working-class market for the "Movie" as well as for pulp novels and other cheap forms of entertainment overrode any moral qualms that publishers or theatre owners might have felt. The arguments around the feeble-minded fell on more receptive ears for many material reasons: the prevalent utopian discourse of the late 19th and early 20th century which felt that humanity was teetering on the edge of a golden age; fears for the future of humanity after population decimation in the Great War; an influx of immigrants as well as the working poor which led to discomfort among the middle- and upper-classes; the growing medicalization and institutionalization of the helping professions, etc. The NCWC's rhetoric on the feeble-minded might have been dismissed as paranoid and elitist had different material conditions not existed.

Thus an analysis of material conditions as well as discourse reveals to us that the women of the NCWC were both the shapers of the age as well as informed by their class-gender status. Although their rhetoric and methods seem to us at times old-fashioned and naive, an examination of them allows us to discursively examine the values, activities and concerns which were present at that historic locus.


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Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. VI: Sex in Relation To Society. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis; 1928 [1910].

Ellis, Havelock. The Task of Social Hygiene. London: Constable & Co.; 1927 [1912].

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Key, Ellen. Love and Ethics. New York: B.W. Huebsch; 1911.

Hasian, Marouf A. The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Athens: University of Georgia Press; 1996.

McLaren, Angus. Our Own Master Race, Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; 1990.

Murphy, Emily. The Black Candle: Canada's First Book on Drug Abuse. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1922.

National Council of Women of Canada Yearbooks. Ottawa: Taylor & Clarke (NCWC); 1900- 1920.

Ng, Roxana. "Sexism, Racism and Canadian Nationalism", Race, Class, Gender: Bonds and Barriers (Jesse Vorst et al, eds.). Toronto: Between the Lines and Winnepeg: Centre for Socialist Studies; 1989, 10-25.

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Valverde, Mariana. The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; 1991.

Warne, Randy. Literature as Pulpit: The Christian Social Activism of Nellie McClung. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press; 1993.

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