Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Know your feminists

In 1914, Nellie McClung was living in Winnipeg. She was involved with many women's groups. Whether it was the Women's Press Club or the Women's Christian Temperance Union, she was active.

One concern she shared with other women was the working conditions of women in the small factories in Winnipeg. Nellie wanted to contribute to making her world better. In fact, that was the thing that motivated much of her life. Improving working conditions was one part of that objective. Because women could not vote, she and her friend, Mrs. Nash, appealed to the premier to take notice of this situation.

In 1914, the premier of Manitoba was Sir Rodmond Roblin.  He was rather ignorant about the working conditions in the factories in Winnipeg. Somehow, Nellie and Mrs. Nash got an audience with the Premier and asked him to accompany them on a tour of some shirt factories in Winnipeg.

Roblin had an idealized picture of women in the work force. He believed that most young women benefitted from work, since electricity and short cuts in labour made idleness a real problem. Working for what he called "pin money" would keep them off the streets. Premier Roblin assumed that most of the women working in these factories were from foreign countries where they were used to such hard work. He claimed that he thought it good that women knew where money came from. Hard work was something women could get used to.

Nellie, in the second volume of her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast, describes what awaited the uninformed Premier:
We conducted the Premier down dark, slippery stairs to an airless basement where light in mid-day came from gaunt light bulbs, hanging from smoky ceilings. The floor was littered with refuse of apple peelings and discarded clothing. There was no ventilation and no heat. The room was full of untidy women, operating sewing machines, and equally unattractive men cutting out garments on long tables. We urged Sir Rodmond to speak to some of the workers, but he was willing to call it a day at first glance. He was shocked at the filth of the place...
We led the Premier through a side door into the foul passage where a queue had formed before a door marked "Toilet." We could see that Sir Rodmond was deeply shocked that we should know about such things but Mrs. Nash led the way, and I pushed him along from behind. We drew his attention to the fact that there was no separate accommodation for the women, and we did not need to mention that the plumbing had evidently gone wrong.
"For God's sake, get me out of here," he cried at last. "I'm choking! I never knew such hell holes existed!"
"These people work from 8:30 to 6:00, Sir Rodmond. Six days a week," Mrs. Nash told him sweetly. "But no doubt they get used to it." I'm afraid her sarcasm was lost on Sir Rodmond.
When expressing his shock, Roblin promised to look into it. Nellie informed him that his factory inspector knew all about these situations, but had done nothing. There were few voices speaking up for factory workers in general at this time; women factory workers were probably pretty low on the list of concerns.

When we talk about feminists, we often lump them into one big category, something feminists don't like themselves. Mary Daly, one of the most famous second wave feminists would have not particularly liked to be compared to Nellie McClung. Their understanding of equality was different as were their motives.

While I suspect that women's suffrage was lobbied for within the context of universal suffrage (remember, there were some men who couldn't vote), women who sought to vote as a way to change society contributed a great deal to freedoms and situations that women take for granted today. We often lump these first-wave feminists in with women whose feminism expresses extremes, and demands things that first wave feminists would have found as shocking as Roblin found the plumbing in the shirt factory. Knowing a little history is a light load to carry.