And on That Farm He Had a Wife: Ontario Farm Women and Feminism, 1900-1970

Article excerpt

Monda Halpern

Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001; 234 pp.

Reviewed by Alicja Muszynski

Department of Sociology

University of Waterloo

Waterloo, Ontario

A good book engages us. And a good academic book challenges its readers to think more profoundly about the issues it raises. There were several occasions, while reading And On That Farm He Had a Wife, when I wished Monda Halpern was in the room with me so that I could ask her questions. Halpern is a careful historian with a mission. She argues that Ontario farm women have not been as deeply conservative and uninterested in feminist issues as portrayed by some historians "who have either avoided the subject of Ontario farm women and feminism or quickly dismissed the connection" (p. 3). Halpern argues that, in the period before 1970 (the resurgence of feminism), farm women were progressive and feminist - social feminists. She contrasts this social feminism with "equity feminism," which she understands to incorporate both liberal and socialist feminism. As a sociologist who has taught and written about feminist theories, and who self-identifies as a socialist (and anti-racist) feminist, I find her categorization of social feminism somewhat problematic.

The strength of the work is the careful documenting of rural (and especially farm) women's organizing in the period during and after the first wave of feminism. In recent decades feminist scholars have demonstrated that women's organizing for social and political change did not disappear after women won the right to vote and to be considered "persons" under the law. Halpern's history adds another chapter to that argument.

The question, it seems to me, hinges around the issue of whether or not we can categorize the work of the Women's Institutes, and of the home economics movement that led to their establishment, as feminist. That these were women's movements I have no doubt. But were they feminist, especially if the definition of feminism requires that its supporters self-identify themselves and their movement as feminist?

The home economics movement afforded farm women a more formal avenue of social feminist expression. Home economics, a woman-centred field of study, appealed to farm women who had nurtured a tradition of female kinship and ritual. Home economics sought to elevate the status, value, efficiency, and safety of women's paid and unpaid domestic work, and to provide for women's progressive education and careers. It critiqued the male-formulated knowledge of conventional disciplines that ignored the particular needs of women, and it respected the work that most of them as housewives would ultimately perform. Female-centred education and careers meant that women did not have to compete with men for university spots and white-collar jobs....Home economics also spawned the formation of the WI in 1897, which offered farm wives household instruction and provided women with greater opportunity to bond with one another in an exclusively female space. The organized female separatism of the WI was a bold initiative within a male-defined rural culture on the "partnership" between husband and wife, and on the connection between propertied fathers and inheriting sons. (pp. 137-8)

My major concern over characterizing such a movement as social feminist is political. Anti-feminist groups like R. …