"You must be kidding!" my critique partners exclaimed as we discussed some historical elements of Adrienne's Choice, the novel I'm writing.
Set in southwestern Ontario, Canada, 1899-1900, there were many "You've got to be kidding" insights as we talked about the era—scenes not from my imagination but from research about the period and the challenges and restrictions women faced.
It's 1899, and Adrienne Langlois is searching for financial and personal autonomy. She has completed teacher training at the Toronto Normal School, but cultural, family, political, and religious norms challenge her decision to seek a career and employment as a teacher.
Here are some Aha's causing my critique group to exclaim, "You must be kidding." Many of these are used as the foundation for Adrienne's Choice.
- In the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth), married women were restricted from teaching. Marriage made women ineligible and considered not to be "professional." In a few districts that allowed married women to teach, they had to resign if they were pregnant.
- Women comprised the majority of teachers but often worked for less than half the pay of their male counterparts. Women were restricted to teaching elementary grades because it was believed they could not control older children and were best suited to nurturing younger students.
- Women were prohibited from becoming school administrators, serving as school trustees, or having a voice (vote) in selecting trustees.
- It wasn't until 1884 in Ontario, with the passage of the Married Women's Property Act, that married women could enter into legal agreements and buy property. Before this time, a husband's permission was necessary for a wife to enter into contracts or administer or sell property she had owned before marriage. There were no provisions for the equitable division of property in case of marriage breakdown or death. This did not change until the passage of the Matrimonial Property Acts in the 1970s.
- The youngest unmarried daughter was often the child expected to stay home and care for aging parents, restricting women from seeking both a career and marrying.
- Women were confined to mental institutions for behaving in ways against societal or cultural norms. Diagnoses of religious excitement, suppressed menstruation, insane by overwork, insane by childbirth, insane by the loss of property, insane by nymphomania, and pregnancy outside of marriage were some of the reasons women were committed to mental institutions by husbands, brothers, or another male. Of women committed to the Toronto Queen Street Asylum before 1900, a quarter were diagnosed with "female trouble" -- "childbirth, lactation, miscarriage, menstrual disorders, uterine disorders" and other natural conditions seen as "the predisposing cause of insanity."
What happens when Adrienne bucks cultural, political, and religious norms to seek autonomy and fulfillment? This is the story of Adrienne's Choice.
A Historical Overview of Education in Canada
Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women's Admission to Asylums in United States of America
Upper Canada (Ontario) Insane Asylum Inmates