Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Toronto's Girl Problem" -- Plus Gender Study's Idealogue Problem

I'm becoming increasingly interested in Canadian culture at the turn of the century. There's lots to read about urbanization and industrialization in America, but I rarely stumble across an equivalent Canadian book.

But here's "Toronto's Girl Problem," by Carolyn Strange. It's a study of female labourers in Toronto between 1880 and 1930, which is surely a subject with a lot of potential. And Strange does a good job of communicating the dilemmas that women faced when they found "domestic service" positions intolerable: many preferred the freedom and pride that came from living alone, not to mention having fewer restrictions on how they spent their leisure time.

But being a "working girl" at the time was very difficult. Not only were they shamelessly exploited at their jobs -- ridiculously low pay, shunned by unions, little legal recognition -- but they were also viewed with suspicion as women prone to wildness: drinkers, pleasure-seekers, unfit for motherhood. And since few of them could afford to live independently on their meagre wages, many relied on the generosity of boyfriends...who rarely gave away money or gifts for free. So in some ways the women were forced to become what the Moralists feared they were in the first place.

All of this is interesting, especially Strange's occasional descriptions of what women at the time did in their spare time and with what little money they had.

But as I read the book I'm biting my tongue. Since the historical accounts of working women are rarely written by the women themselves -- they're usually culled from extremely patronizing court records and newspaper reports -- Strange takes liberties when it comes to interpreting the motives of the men and women she writes about. And a pattern has emerged, one I so often find in gender studies.

Based on flimsy reports (or likeminded secondary sources), Strange conveniently ascribes motivations depending on a simple rule that she all but spells out:

Working women are always BRAVE. They bravely testify in court, they bravely speak out, they bravely take their grievances to police. They are always exploited by everybody else...UNLESS Strange wants to portray a particular woman (usually a prostitute) as strong, in which case she's simply worldly and independent and -- yes -- brave.

Men tend to be (literally) described as cowardly and patronizing. If there's a motive to be ascribed on the basis of ambiguous evidence, the man is ALWAYS portrayed in a negative light. Middle-class women are also exploiters and patronizers.

Here's an example of Strange struggling to find a way to NOT present men or authority figures as sympathetic, charitable, or reasonable. She mentions that when women were arrested for infanticide they were almost always acquitted. She says that historians are "puzzled" by this, and she concedes that some view this as "an expression of 'compassion' and sympathy towards women who were clearly in dire straits." But then she concludes -- with no evidence or clear explanation -- that it's MUCH more likely that judges were ensuring the "proper continuation of male blood lines," and that city fathers approved of infanticide because it reduced the number of destitute children, or that judges wanted to save the children's FATHERS from scandal, or that this leniency was due to the lives of poor undernourished infants being "cheap." Lord forbid a judge EVER understand a woman's motivation or circumstances!

She uses the same reasoning when revealing that police rarely arrested prostitutes. It couldn't be because the police didn't see prostitutes as people that deserved, it was because the police were protecting prostitutes so that their male bretheren could use them someday. Naturally.

Add to this her obsession with eugenics -- which as of page 73 she's been unable to connect with her subject, though she's tried plenty hard -- and I'm finding the book increasingly unpleasant to read. I mean, OF COURSE these women were exploited, they were not treated fairly by the courts or the city government...all that is a compelling enough story. But Carolyn Strange is painting a picture of Victorian-era Toronto where all the working women are sweet people being victimized by all the men. And it's somehow tied in with a middle-class obsession with white purity, or something.

And let me make it clear that this sweeping portrayal of actualy exploitation was surely true, I don't object to that. What I DO object to is Strange's injection of this characterization into personal accounts, with no evidence.

Here's a final example, the one that really drove me crazy, just in case you think I'm being overly touchy. A woman starts to hang around with an older married man at a boarding house. The woman denies that anything is going on. When she becomes pregnant she claims she was raped by a stranger. Shortly after this she dies of a botched abortion, and it comes to light that the two of them had been trying to find a way for her to get an abortion, and when their efforts failed, the man tried to do it himself. He failed and she died.

These are the details of the case. How does Carolyn Strange sum it up? It's "a classic tale of a young maiden's desertion, betrayal, and eventual death at the hands of her cowardly suitor." It's possible that she's putting this in the terms that the newspaper reports used -- sometimes it's difficult to know what she's referring to, or what the meaning is behind her frequent scare quotes -- but it's pretty much in line with the rest of the book.

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