Schwartz, Deborah - M.A
Heroes And Helpmates:The Rural Ideal In Early Twentieth Century Ontario - Dr. Catharine Wilson, advisor
In Ontario depictions of rural life have often been romanticised, and stereotypes of country life as simple, stable, and uplifting, have been dominant and enduring. In particular, the image of the strong self-sustaining yeoman working the land and providing for his family has persisted. Limited attention has been given to where the ideas and images of rural life have come from, and why the idealized notions have become culturally ingrained. This paper will investigate the rural ideal in Ontario from 1900 to approximately 1920.1 It will be argued that during this period the rural ideal grew in response to broader issues within Canadian society, and was a multilayered discourse inseparable from conceptions of Canadian nationalism. It reflected concerns and responses to urbanization, the welfare of the nation, World War I, and women's issues. It was constructed in relation to depictions of the city and borrowed elements from western philosophical thought. Though rarely acknowledged by scholars, gender was also an important facet of the rural ideal. The ideal placed rural men at the forefront in the nation building narrative. Since men were given the primary role within the construct, the role of women was relational. Women's role as depicted in the rural ideal was to facilitate the male role, and to revolve around marriage, the family, and the home. The rural ideal was a construct in which women were "helpmates", a role which both gave them status and limited them.
In the early twentieth century Canada experienced the rise of industrialization and urbanization, the class hierarchy expanded, the women's suffrage movement led to enfranchisement, and large scale economic growth, territorial expansion and social reform transformed the nation. As historian Mariana Valverde detailed in The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925, it was a 'transitional age' in which major changes took place in Canadian society, changes that had long-lasting influence. As a result, the era has been the focus of intense historical interest, and remains the most studied period of Canadian history. Topics of industry and urbanization have garnered the most attention, resulting in a Canadian historiography with a primarily urban focus. Historical writing on social reform movements in urban areas has been prolific, and issues of philanthropy, education, poverty, prostitution, religion, temperance, industrial conditions, crime, vice, and xenophobia have been written about extensively. In addition, numerous studies of urban politics, industry and economics have appeared. Thus, in Canadian historiography, urban life and urban perspectives have been dominant and well represented.
Some Canadian historical study has expanded beyond the urban focus and explored aspects of the rural as well. Though still a growing field, the rural is starting to be recognized as a central and integral part of the Canadian past. Many histories of rural life focus on the family and the economy. Topics such as fanning, agriculture and staple exports have been the main focus of much historical writing. Much of the literature has insisted that the development of natural resources was the primary factor in the building of Canada's economy, and the shaping of its social structures. In fact, historical research has not moved far beyond agricultural performance, the growth of markets and technological change. As historian Douglas McCalla pointed out in the article "The Ontario Economy in the Long Run," human agency has not been incorporated into the majority of literature." Focus on the economy has meant that the social aspects of rural life have remained understudied and unexplored.
More recently, however, a shift has taken place in historical writing on the rural. A social history of the rural has emerged that looks at everyday life and the "human side". This is evident in current works on rural women, such as that done by Monda, Halpern, Royden Loewen, and Catharine A. Wilson. Other studies, however, have relied largely on urban ideals of womanhood. The sources have been urban magazines, newspapers, government documents and reports, primarily representing the urban perspective. The tendency of some rural historians to rely on urban generated sources has provided an incomplete view of ideas that may have shaped rural women's lived experience, and may not entirely reflect their lives and perspectives. Specifically rural representations would provide more direct insight into the ideas and beliefs that shaped the everyday lives of men and women.
The rural ideal is particularly important to examine as it has long been a part of western culture and philosophical thought. There is no entirely clear definition of the rural ideal; it covered a variety of doctrines and topics and has been a changing entity made up of many strains and contradictions. For example, the rural ideal has emphasized man's communion with nature, while encompassing the scientific attitude to agriculture and the desire to control it. It has also been used to promote ideas of community, while at the same time focusing on the importance of individual ownership.