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 go to university. Married women also did not have property rights and in Québec could not enter into legal contracts until the 1960s!

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. This ideology, of course, was encouraged by the Catholic Church.

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

(1909) Woman's Sphere: Suffrage cartoons. , 1909. [?] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller002064/ .
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 who also had to fight back against losing the title to her land. Mary Two-Axe Earley also spent much of her life fighting against the injustices that the Indian Act, amended in 1876 such that Status Indian women who “married out” (i.e., married a non-Status Indian man) lost their status.

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.

"My poor husband, you complain of your ten hours of work. I've been working fourteen hours, and my day is not yet over."
Photolithograph Work: via McCord Museum under Public Domain

Women not considered equal

"In the 19th century, in Canada and elsewhere in the world, women were not considered equal to men. It was believed that the primary role of women was to have children and to stay at home.

At this time, women were considered children under the law. They were subjected to male domination. The belonged to their fathers and once married, belonged to their husbands.

Women often worked in low-value and low-paying jobs. They were also paid a lower wage than men. The term ''weaker sex” was often used to refer to women. Women were considered to be physically and emotionally inferior to men."

Legal limitations of women

Before marriage, the woman is under the responsibility of her father. Thereafter, she is under the authority of her husband;

After her marriage, she must adopt her husband's first and last names on official documents. For example, she becomes Mrs. Marcel Brousseau;

She cannot have a bank account in her name;

She cannot sue anyone;

It is the husband who chooses the house and the place of residence;

If a man is found guilty of adultery, he must pay a fine while a woman in the same situation will be incarcerated;

She cannot be the only person responsible for minor children.

Source: Les femmes canadiennes au 19e siècle https://www.alloprof.qc.ca/

THE PARLOUR KITCHEN 50 YEARS HENCE. Edward Jump. 1873. McCord Museum. Public Domain. (See also, The Cooking Machine!)

Women Operating Cartridge Case Presses, Canadian Allis-Chalmers», Library and Archives Canada, Department of Defence Collection, C 018864, vers 1915 via Lachine Canal - Parks Canadac.ca/

The sectors of activity

"At that time, the role of the married woman was to procreate and to take care of her house.

Many young young girls and single women were poorly educated and without specialized training. Since educating women wasn’t a priority, domestic work was the most common occupation.

In Québec, it is normal to see young women aged 15 to 20 working in the city before getting married and starting a family.

Most women who worked, only had a limited amount of jobs they could do. Many became servants, sales clerks or factory workers.

By the end of the 19th century, about 30% of Montreal's factory workers were women. They worked mostly in the textile, clothing, rubber, tobacco and shoe industries.

At that time, more educated women chose to become teachers. However, once they got married, they had to resign and assume the role of wife and mother."

Source: Caroline Clarke (SWLSB) based on various sources used in Quebec History programs.

Ward L, Montreal General Hospital, Montreal, QC, 1910. McCord Museum. Wm. Notman & Son. Public Domain. Also via Societies and Territories - The Church and religious communities

The religious communities

The Church was very present at the time, which led to the creation of several religious communities. These communities worked in the field of hospital care, teaching and in many other social areas. For example, they were often responsible for soup kitchens, orphanages, daycare centers, etc.

Belonging to a religious community was very well perceived in society. Religious women could participate in public life. They had the opportunity to obtain higher positions, such as school principal, or administrative positions. However, women who made the decision to join a religious community gave up their right to marry.

Source: Caroline Clarke (SWLSB) based on various sources used in Quebec History programs. Gelatin Silver Glass Plate Negative

Temperance advertisement John Henry Walker (1831-1899) McCord Museum under Public Domain.

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 their 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!

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

For now, our larger curation of online documents (also under development), click here or see below.

1840-1896 (#11) Federal System - Women in Victorian Canada