"Essentially a Women's Work": Reform, Empire and the Winnipeg Children's Hospital, 1909-1925

By Di Cresce, Greg | Manitoba History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

"Essentially a Women's Work": Reform, Empire and the Winnipeg Children's Hospital, 1909-1925


Di Cresce, Greg, Manitoba History


The Winnipeg Children's Hospital first appeared in a booming, ambitious and optimistic prairie metropolis in the early twentieth century. It took its shape in the city's north end against a backdrop of explosive immigration, ferociously paced urban and industrial growth and a remarkably active and reform-minded British-Canadian middle class. While responding to such factors, the Children's Hospital also found its evolving form in the dynamic scientific developments of medicine and the steady push for greater professionalization among health care workers.

From 1909 to 1925, the Winnipeg Children's Hospital appears to have followed the general two-step narrative associated with most voluntary hospitals in Canada. The first step, from 1890 to 1920, involved reformers and professionals working to convince the broader public to transfer the care of the sick from home to hospital. Prior to this shift, the hospital was largely regarded as "a charnel house for the sick poor." (1) They were considered places of last resort. The second step, from 1920 to 1950, saw health professionals attempting to turn hospitals into healing institutions for all members of the community, and a gradual failure to achieve this goal. A significant reason for this failure involved a greater commercialization and industrialization of heath as it was increasingly commoditized. Charitable hospitals slowly turned into health factories that not everyone could afford.

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While following these broad contours of development, the Children's Hospital was also a complex social site of cooperation, compromise and contest: processes highly gendered as well as shaped by class, ethnicity and race. Distinct attitudes regarding Empire and its relation to reform further complicated the picture. Many reform-minded actors, from businessmen and politicians to club and professional women, carried the ideological baggage of Canadian imperialism and settler colonialism with them from England and eastern Canada to Winnipeg, and quickly put them to work in the community--even before the city experienced its surge in urban-industrial development at the turn of the century. They viewed the city as both "an industrial and a colonial centre" (2) and this imbued Winnipeg's reform movement and its response to social ills of the modern metropolis with a distinctive inflection.

In the case of the Children's Hospital, this inflection expressed itself most notably in a maternal feminist influence on the institution's daily management and organization. Even as maternal feminism's reach shrank with the gradual emergence of female professionalism, the maternal model continued to influence hospital policy. This persistence speaks to a potent understanding of family, a patriarchal logic that lay at the core of the imperial project. It was a vision that idealized and naturalized a two-sphere approach. It fixed women and children in a domestic bubble and placed men in the public realm of politics and economics. Such attitudes when applied to the Winnipeg Children's Hospital tended to "naturally" transform the doctor-nurse-patient relationship into a kind of familial relationship, especially because the patient being cared for was a child. Also important to this project was the perceived superiority not only of British practices, ideas and beliefs, but also of the British race vis-a-vis immigrants from other parts of the globe. Together these notions informed the design, management and location of the hospital in its early years.

Winnipeg Context: Reforming Empire

When the hospital opened in the winter of 1909 on Beaconsfield Street in the north end of the city, Winnipeg was booming. From 1901 to 1913, Winnipeg gained more than 100,000 people as it grew from a modest city of 42,000 to a cosmopolitan metropolis of 150,000. (3) It was now the third largest city in the Dominion behind only Toronto and Montreal. Passing through this gateway city to the "Last Best West" were hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many from central and eastern Europe and Britain. …

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