Women in Victorian Canada

Questions to ask yourself:

Is women’s history separate from Canadian history? Why is women’s history sometimes overlooked?

And … Did the lives of people in the 19th Century get better or worse?

What you will be able to do:

Describe the legal status of women in the 19th century

Explain why women began to organize, and the impact of the English-speaking women’s organizations in Quebec


Women in 19th Century Canada had few legal rights compared to men. The law was designed to limit women's access to public life. They could not vote, and women in Lower Canada lost this right in 1849. Along with being unable to vote, women could not hold public office, sit on a jury or access university. Married women also did not have property rights and in Quebec could not enter into legal contracts until the 1960's!

Maternal Feminism

Maternal feminism, also referred to as first wave feminism, was one of the dominant ideologies that middle and upper class women believed in the mid to late 19th Century and the early 20th Century. This belief system was centered on the traditional roles of women as the keeper of the house, raising children, and instilling moral values. In this ideology, women's participation in public life was that of the mother.

People in the 19th century believed that society had two areas or spheres. There was the private sphere, which was the domain of women, and the public sphere that was the preserve of men.

Mary Ann Shadd circa 1845-55 Library and Archives Canada / C-029977

Women breaking into the public sphere

While maternal feminism was rooted in middle class values, this does not mean that other women did not seek to break out of the private sphere and into the public. For example, Nahebahwequa, an Anishinaabe woman also known by the white name Catherine Sutton, had married a non-indigenous man and fought back against the dispossession from her land. As well, Mary Ann Shadd was a free Black woman who moved to Upper Canada and established a racially integrated school, and wrote articles and published an abolitionist newspaper in Upper Canada that also advocated for women's rights. Although, she had to hide the fact that she was the publisher.

Temperance advertisement John Henry Walker (1831-1899) © McCord Museum under licenses/by-nc-nd/

Women's organizations

The founding of the Toronto Women’s Literary Society in 1876 was the first of the middle class women's organizations in Canada. Middle and Upper Class women were beginning to seek greater rights in society and they used women's organizations dedicated to social reform as their vehicle. Organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) advocated for temperance (prohibition on alcohol), charity and women's suffrage (the right to vote). These maternal feminists emphasized there role as mothers as a way to solve social ills like drunkenness, smoking, violence against women, child poverty and malnutrition, and prostitution. Other women promoted feminism that was based on equal rights and sought to gain legal rights, access to higher education and entry into professions like the law and medicine.

French Canadian women had to navigate the patriarchal Catholic Church. Some sough to advance themselves within the Church by taking vows as nuns, others, particularly bourgeois Francophone women worked through maternal feminist organizations like the Fédération National Saint-Jean-Baptiste, established in 1907. The women's movement in Canada was diverse, but what unified them was that they sought to break out of the traditional private sphere that had been consigned to them by men.

All texts by Matt Russell | © LEARN under CC license BY-NC-ND

Above texts and this whole section are under development!

More resources are coming soon!

This section will soon be populated with new texts, curated images, and activities.

For now, our larger curation of online documents is under development here and teachers can visit https://www.learnquebec.ca/histquecan_resources to find other resources.