Western's Caucus on Women's Issues

Essay Awards > Essay Award Winners 2004

The 2004 essay award winners include:

      First prize - Not Just Daddy's Little Girl: An Examination of the Barriers to Women's                                Political Participation and of the Women Who Overcame Them

                         by Lauren Starr, Political Science

     Second prize - “Most People Need Constant Reminders Not To Presume

                          Heterosexuality: Institutionalized Heterosexuality, Lesbianism and

                          the Oppression of Women In The Workforce

                          by Angela Turner, Women's Studies

     Honorable Mention - "The Cinematic Representation of Gendered Violence and the                                 Transcending of Gender-Based Stereotypical Roles in Benito Zambrino's

                           "Solas", by Christine Pickering.

The first two essays are reprinted below.

2004 First Prize:

Not Just Daddy's Little Girl: An Examination of the Barriers

to Women's Political Participation and of the Women Who Overcame Them


Lauren Starr

Dept. of Political Science

     Women have never enjoyed equal representation in Canadian politics. Since their federal enfranchisement in 1921, women have rarely become actively involved in politics. [1] Not only were female candidates unsuccessful, there were many elections that did not include a single female candidate. Until the 1980s, political representation of women was below twelve percent all across Canada . Presently, there are sixty-three women in the House of Commons out of a possible three hundred and one seats. [2] While the gap between men and women MPs is much smaller than it ever was, 21% is not equality. To understand why women continue to make up less than 50% of the federal or provincial legislatures, it is helpful to explore the uniqueness of the women who overcame political exclusion in Canada in the twentieth century.

     In examining the early lives of thirteen Canadian female politicians, the four major advantages that led these women toward political success emerged. [3] Family political involvement, exposure to equal relationships, higher education and work outside the home allowed these women to be successful despite the social expectations of their day. From roughly 1900 to 1950, societal barriers stopped most women from considering work in politics. Further, the essay will show how women were discouraged by the structure of political parties as they began to undertake political work. Most political parties excluded women by relegating them to domestic roles in auxiliaries and by neglecting to provide them with sufficient support.

     Considering all the obstacles and difficulties that women faced, one wonders how any woman managed to become politically active. Nonetheless, female politicians did exist at both the provincial and federal levels. A comparison of some Canadian female politicians will show that it was largely their early life experiences and their personal relationships that allowed them to break free from the dominant views about women's proper position and take their rightful place in Canadian politics. According to historian Margaret Conrad, women approach the description of their lives differently than men: they focus more on the close relationships they develop, because it is those relationships that have given females a place in society. [4] These relationships also affect the life paths women choose to embark upon.

    With regards to the personal relationships and experiences of almost all of the women included in this study there are four major similarities. The first norm that will be examined is the political participation of the women's families, since many of these women had politically active fathers, uncles, husbands and even neighbours. The second condition that almost all of the women experienced in their formative years was exposure to the idea that women could do the same things that men could do. Many fathers encouraged their daughters to become involved in political discussions. Some women saw equal relationships between their parents, who broke away from the traditional male and female roles in the household. Others experienced equality first hand with the men they married, who supported their endeavours and who encouraged their free thought. The third criterion that enabled women to join politics was an education. Some of the women were not able to attend university, but all of them were exceptionally good students while they attended high school. Lastly, all of the women included in this study were active in their community in women's organizations and many participated in the workforce. It would be a mistake to suggest that these female politicians shared the same lifestyles or held the same views. Senators Cairine Wilson and Thérèse Casgrain came from wealthy families in Quebec , while Agnes Macphail and Nellie McClung were farmers' daughters born in Ontario . Thérèse Casgrain was an ardent supporter of suffrage while Margaret McWilliams did not see a need for the enfranchisement of women. [5] From an examination of biographies available for female politicians in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century, it appears that almost all shared early experiences that shaped their outlook on life and gave them the confidence to choose politics as a career.

     All but a few of the women in this study had politically active family members. Some of the women's fathers were members of Parliament while others were simply politically active citizens. As a young girl Cairine Wilson and her father, an MP, were frequent guests at Prime Minister Laurier's house. Not only did politics interest Wilson , but Laurier also became her idol. [6] Grace MacInnis' father, J.S. Woodsworth, was the founder of the Western socialist party the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. His beliefs had a major impact on young Grace, who actually hid material that might have looked suspicious after her father was arrested during the Winnipeg Strike. [7] Thérèse Casgrain was the daughter of a member of parliament and the niece of the premier of Quebec . On the surface it would seem unlikely for such a wealthy woman to eventually take up a cause like socialism. [8] However, in her autobiography she speaks highly of the generosity her father showed to his own constituents. His actions surely had a great impact on Thérèse's later concern for the working classes. [9] Muriel McQueen Fergusson was exposed to important political people through her father, who was a prominent lawyer in New Brunswick . [10] Flora MacDonald's father took her to her first political meeting at the age of thirteen which launched her career as an active Tory supporter. [11] Mary Ellen Smith's father, a coalminer, held regular political discussions at his home for his co-workers and neighbours. [12]

     It was not just their fathers who influenced these women to join politics. The other men in their lives also gave them political exposure and experience. Martha Black's political awareness came from her second husband. From the time her husband became the seventh Commissioner of the Yukon Territory in 1912 until she took over his constituency in the 1935 election, Black was keenly involved in the local and national politics that revolved around her. [13] Black was seventy years old when she took over her ill husband's seat in the Canadian parliament. [14] Grace MacInnis, Cairine Wilson, Thérèse Casgrain, and Mary Ellen Smith were also married to MPs. They all participated in their husband's work. Both Casgrain and Wilson helped their husbands with their re-election campaigns. [15] It was said of Mary Ellen Smith that she had twenty years of apprenticeship assisting her husband on his political trips and her biographer asserted that there was “ample evidence that she was more than a travelling companion.” [16] After her stint as secretary to her father, Grace MacInnis became even more heavily involved in the C.C.F movement at the encouragement of her husband, Angus MacInnis. Margaret Aitken's brother was a member of the British House of Commons in England and during her election campaign he travelled to Canada to lend Margaret his support; [17] her uncle was the famous Lord Beaverbrook. [18] Familiarity with politicians allowed these women to see what the job entailed and to determine that they were capable as well. They were able to see that they could move outside their homes and that their lives could involve politics.

     Female politicians seldom disregarded the traditional roles that were expected of them. The vast majority of these women were wives, mothers and homemakers. However, early in life almost all were taught that other contributions they could make were equally valuable. Some, such as Mary Ellen Smith, were encouraged to become involved in political discussions as children. [19] The fathers of both Grace MacInnis and Flora MacDonald took their children on long walks around town, educating them about their surroundings and listening to their ideas. [20] Irene Parlby's father encouraged her to be a doctor despite her artistic leanings. [21] The father of Muriel McQueen Fergusson urged her to “be all that she could be” and he allowed her to apprentice in his law office. [22] Cairine Wilson had a domineering father, but he often took Cairine with him to sessions of parliament. [23] Clearly the majority of these women were exposed to the idea that their gender should not prevent them from thinking on their own. They were able to build the confidence to pursue a lifestyle out of the ordinary.

     It is interesting to note that it was usually their fathers who encouraged these women to think critically. Some of the women's mothers did embrace equality within their marriages; all were strong women. Grace MacInnis' mother worked outside the home and shared a cooperative lifestyle with her husband. [24] Mary Ellen Smith's mother, along with other local coalminers' wives, was passionate about public affairs. [25] In order to account for Nellie McClung and Agnes Macphail's political successes, one must look at the work that their mothers did. While Mrs. Mooney (Nellie's mother) might have held an “old world reverence for men,” she was extremely productive on their farm. [26] Later in life Macphail said: “[p]erhaps if I owed my father the ability to get into Parliament, I owed [my mother] the ability to stand it when I got there.” [27] Both mothers were just as responsible for the success or failure of their farms as their husbands. Historian Kathy Brock suggested pioneers were more likely to believe in and to practice equality between the sexes. [28] Deborah Gorham believes this phenomenon is related to the emotionally supportive role that frontier women played within pioneer families. [29] Females were also responsible for a major part of economic production in farming areas and so they were an integral part of agrarian society. [30] Many urban mothers also provided emotional and economic support for their families and they set an example for their daughters by working inside the home. Ellen Fairclough talks of the economic stress that befell her family during a recession and how her mother took in boarders to supplement their income. [31] While these mothers may not have paved the way for their daughters' lifestyles and vocations, they did show their daughters that women could be strong and industrious.

     Even though many of their mothers did not believe in equal roles for women, some female relatives and friends influenced the daughters otherwise. Nellie McClung states that if a certain Mrs. Brown had not taken her to a political meeting, she probably would not have gone. [32] Ellen Fairclough's aunt set an example for Ellen: she overcame her blindness to tour the United States with the Salvation Army Band and she encouraged Ellen to read. [33] Agnes Macphail's landlord invited her to join in political discussions with his neighbours [34] and her grandmother showed her that women were equally capable of doing jobs that were traditionally thought to be men's work. [35] Martha Black describes her visits to her Aunt Ione's house, “one of the advanced women of her generation,” where she met Frances E. Willard and Susan B. Anthony. [36] These independent women likely showed these future politicians that it was possible to be a female and to be strong and self-sufficient.

Several of the men that these women married were not opposed to equality. Cairine Wilson's husband was devoted; ultimately his outlook made it possible for Cairine to work outside their home. Valerie Knowles notes this arrangement was rare in Cairine's conservative, upper class world. [37] Grace MacInnis' life with her husband is described as a team effort; her husband respected and appreciated her skills and her excellent education. [38] Ellen Fairclough's marriage was described as “one of those rare working partnerships;” her husband assisted her with her campaigns. [39] Mary Ellen Smith's husband introduced suffrage legislation into the B.C. legislature even though it had been struck down before. [40] The equality their husbands accepted provided these women with important support.

     Dominant views about women's place in society also affected their access to education. When the debate about women entering universities first heated up in the 1870s many scholars were adamantly opposed to female education. [41] In 1919, fourteen percent of college and university students were women; it took a long time and significant struggle for women to be admitted to universities and usually it was done to make them better mothers. [42] It is no surprise that only Margaret McWilliams, Grace MacInnis and Muriel Fergusson held university degrees. However, all of the women, except possibly Martha Black, appear to have been good students. Flora MacDonald, Ellen Fairclough and Agnes Macphail were often at the top of their classes. The case of Agnes Macphail reveals the conflict between social expectations and personal aspirations. Her parents did not want her to leave home to go to high school. They felt they needed her help more than she needed to continue her education. However, after two years, her desire to go and her persistence won out over her parents' disapproval. In fact, when her father told her she could go, he said they would find the best school available. [43] Muriel McQueen Fergusson's diction lessons and experience in the drama society at school helped her to make the jump to political speech making. [44] The success these women had in school added to their confidence and led them toward becoming professional women.

     The final similarity that almost all the women in this study share is their work outside their homes. On top of their domestic duties, which could often become overwhelming without help, these women worked outside the home, and were heavily involved in their communities. For someone of an elite status, like Thérèse Casgrain, volunteer work was expected. She took great interest in this work and founded a number of organizations to help women. [45] Both Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney were ardent temperance supporters; at the time of her death McKinney was acting president of the national Women's Christian Temperance Union. [46]

     Some of the women were paid for the work they did outside the home: Margaret Aitken, Margaret McWilliams and Therese Casgrain were journalists; Nellie McClung, Agnes Macphail, Grace MacInnis, Louise McKinney and Mary Ellen Smith all began their careers as teachers; Flora MacDonald, Grace MacInnis, and Mary Ellen Smith did secretarial work; Ellen Louks Fairclough was an accountant. Muriel McQueen Fergusson was a lawyer and the first female regional director of Family Allowances and Old Age Security in New Brunswick . She began her political involvement by campaigning and speech making, which was part of her job as a law clerk in her father's office. [47] When her husband fell ill she took over his legal practice and his positions as Judge of the Probate Court, Clerk of the County Court, and town solicitor of Grand Falls. [48]

     It is also relevant to note that some of these working women got their start in politics at the municipal level. Margaret McWilliams was a city alderman for Winnipeg. [49] Ellen Louks Fairclough was elected alderman for the city of Hamilton in 1946, then senior controller and deputy mayor in 1949. [50] Muriel Fergusson was a city councillor from 1951 to 1953 and the Deputy Mayor in 1953 for the city of Fredericton. [51]

     A familiar pattern for these women was to jump directly from community involvement into provincial and federal politics. Louise McKinney was a stronger temperance activist than she was a politician; it was the fight for temperance legislation that led her into public office. [52] Irene Parlby's involvement with the United Farm Women of Alberta can be directly linked to her eventual election as an U.F.A representative in Alberta's provincial legislature. [53] Agnes Macphail was still teaching and Ellen Fairclough was still working as an accountant when they began getting involved in their local political associations. Fairclough also worked her way to executive positions in the United Empire Loyalist Association and in the Zonta (a organization for business and professional women). [54] For a farm girl like Macphail, becoming active in the farmer's organizations seemed natural. Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby joined the farmer's movement once they married. All three women spoke publicly for the movement; Parlby became the first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta. Nellie McClung was also a strong supporter of the temperance movement, a founder of the Political Equality League in Winnipeg, and a suffrage supporter. [55] Mary Ellen Smith was heavily involved in local organizations: among other things, she founded the Laurier Liberal Ladies' League, became president of the Vancouver Branch of the Women's Canadian Club and of the Women's Ratepayers Association and was the first Vice President of the Political Equality League. [56] Muriel McQueen Fergusson began her fight for the poor in her youth by gathering clothes and packing food baskets. After her marriage she worked with teenage girls, founded the Grand Falls Literary club and wrote for the newspaper in Saint John. [57] These women were able to gain experience, contacts, and marketable skills that would later aid them with their election campaigns. The esteem that many of these women earned in the community because of the work they did helped them to overcome the stereotypes about women.

     These stereotypes were ingrained in popular beliefs about females. The traditional views about women's proper role in the home and family shaped women's political struggles. It was not just men who believed women belonged in the home. Even ardent feminist Nellie McClung had a mother who thought that women were meant to be only wives and mothers. [58] Additionally, women were thought to be fragile and, therefore, incapable of political action. Christine MacDonald recalls that opponents to female suffrage stated that going to the polls could “contaminate” female voters. [59] Others argued that women should not be enfranchised because they would not vote intelligently. [60] Lastly, earning a living somehow demeaned a woman. McClung noted that most people happily accepted women's voluntary work, but it suddenly became improper once the work paid a salary. [61] These ideas dominated every aspect of women's lives, especially their political participation.

Remarkably, many women did overcome societal barriers to join political parties; however, instead of welcoming these women as equal members, party leaders continued to present opposition. [62] Statistical evidence shows that political parties acted as “gatekeepers” to the political arena. [63] As the party system was developing in Canada, it was the dominant expectation that women would remain in the private sphere; therefore, most party leaders were not ready to accept women as equal members. [64] As women began to become members, the major parties formed separate women's associations. The Liberal party was the first to create a distinct women's organization; the Conservatives followed suit a few years later. The National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada (NFLW) was created in 1928, and it encouraged women to set up Liberal associations of their own all across Canada. [65] Several justifications arose. Political organizers suggested that women did not feel comfortable operating in the “male dominated liberal constituency organizations.” [66] The associations attempted to give women a political outlet more conducive to their uniquely female talents. [67] It was also proposed that women could receive training and preparation so that they could participate in politics. However, these associations did not fulfill their mandates.

    Instead of moving into organizational and leadership roles, women carried out the domestic duties of the party. Women paid separate membership dues, which usually meant they were not automatic members of the larger party. [68] Women could not gain equal access to political affairs or impact policy decisions because they were contained in their “proper” sphere, where they baked and fundraised for the larger party. Eventually, in 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women condemned women's auxiliaries for blocking women from equal political access. [69]

     As women gained some status in society, particularly the right to vote, more women recognised that they should become elected officials. Nevertheless, prejudice against women in politics continued long after women were first enfranchised. [70] As a number of scholars note, the quality of support female candidates received from their parties was limited. Jane MacDonald, president of the Women's Liberal Federation wrote in 1969, “I can speak from experience when I say a woman candidate is entirely on her own once she becomes a candidate.” [71] Without support from their parties, it is not surprising that women had difficulty running successful campaigns. Women were often run as “sacrificial lambs” in ridings that had shown long-term support for an opposing party. [72] One argument used by party officials to explain why women were not elected stated that they had few qualified women whom they could nominate to winnable ridings. This claim was contradicted by Liberal Judy LaMarsh, who was in parliament from 1960 to 1968, when she criticized her party because they did not “actively recruit promising women to run as candidates.” [73] In fact, Janine Brodie found that between 1945 and 1975, women's educational or occupational status was not a factor in their nomination to a receptive riding. [74] A woman's gender, and not her qualifications, determined whether she would be likely to secure party support in political campaigns.

     Clearly society did not force women to remain in the private sphere nor did all political organizations suppress women. Many women believed that their role was in the home and they found it fulfilling. Interviews with some female auxiliary members promote a sense that many women were quite happy with their level of participation within the political parties and auxiliaries. [75] Nevertheless, first hand accounts and statistical evidence cannot be ignored: those women who overcame bias, gender socialization and over-work were not given equal access to public office. Separate women's associations were restrictive, and political parties very rarely provided equal opportunities for their female candidates.

The few women who succeeded show distinctive traits. It was the personal and early relationships these women had that allowed them to overcome limitations surrounding women's role in society. The exposure to public affairs that they received gave them background knowledge that allowed them to be politically active. Their family members, particularly their fathers, gave them the self-confidence to strive for more in life than traditions dictated. Their success in school likely added to this self-assurance. Supportive husbands did not stand in their way and in some cases aided in their campaigns for public office. The work they did outside the home allowed them to gain some of the resources and support that is required to run a successful election campaign. Considering the obstacles that social norms and political parties placed in front of women candidates, it is likely that these female politicians succeeded precisely because of the strong and unusual influences in their lives. [76]


[1] Canadian women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote in federal elections on May 24, 1918. Provincial enfranchisement of women varied: Manitoba was first (January 1916) and Quebec was last (April 1940).

[2] This statistic includes Shelia Copps who recently lost a by-election in her riding. “Women in the House of Commons,” Senators and Members – Current Information , Library of Parliament, 23 June 2003, <http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/house/WomenHofC.asp?lang=E>

[3] This is by no means a comprehensive study of the foundation of political success; unfortunately it was impossible to include more female politicians simply because details about their early lives are not available.

[4] Ellen Louks Fairclough. Saturday's Child . (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), viii (Introduction by Margaret Conrad).

[5] Mary Kinnear. Margaret McWilliams . (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991), 47 (Written by McWilliams in a letter to Catherine Cleverdon 1 October 1946).

[6] Valerie Knowles. First Person . (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1998), 45.

[7] Ann Farrell. Grace MacInnis: A story of Love and Integrity. (Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1994), 40.

[8] Susan Mann Trofimenkoff. “Thérèse Casgrain and the CCF in Quebec.” in Beyond the vote: Canadian women and politics. Edited by Kealey, Linda, and Joan Sangster. (T oronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 140.

[9] Thérèse Casgrain. A Woman in a Man's World . (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1972), 25.

[10] Joan Reid, “Muriel McQueen Fergusson: a study of interwave feminism in New Brunswick” (Masters Thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1988), 8.

[11] Alvin Armstrong. Flora MacDonald . (Canada: J.M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1974), 3.

[12] Elizabeth Norcross. “Mary Ellen Smith.” in Not Just Pin Money . Edited by Barbara Latham and Roberta Pazdro. (Victoria: Camosun College, 1984), 357.

[13] Martha Louise Black. My Ninety Years . (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing, 1976), 82.

[14] Black, 136.

[15] Valerie Knowles. First Person . (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1998), 68 and Casgrain, 42.

[16] Norcross, 358.

[17] Margaret Aitken. Hey Ma! I did It. (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1953), 55.

[18] BBC News. “Jonathan Aitken - a 'swashbuckling' life.” UK Politics. 7 December 1998. (29 February 2004) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/229560.stm and Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie. Beaverbrook: a Life . (London: Hutchinson, 1992), 317.

[19] Norcross, 357.

[20] Farrell, 12, 14 and Armstrong, 28.

[21] National Library of Canada. “Irene Marryat Parlby.” Celebrating Women's Achievements. 30 January 2004 (24 February 2004). http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/history/12/h12-307-e.html

[22] Canadian Press. “Film focuses on remarkable woman”   Calgary Herald . Calgary, Alta.: 19 January 1996, F7. And Mary Biggar Peck. The bitter with the sweet : New Brunswick 1604-1984 . (Tantallon, N.S.: Four East Publications, 1983), 158.

[23] Knowles, 38, 44-45.

[24] Farrell, 20.

[25] Norcross, 357.

[26] Candace Savage. Our Nell . (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979), 3, 19.

[27] Margaret Stewart and Doris French. Ask no quarter: A biography of Agnes Macphail . (Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company, 1959), 26.

[28] Kathy Brock. “Women in the Manitoba Legislature.” In In the presence of women: representation in Canadian governments . eds. Jane Arscott and Linda Trimble. ( Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company Canada, 1997), 185.

[29] Gorham, 49.

[30] Gorham, 49.

[31] Fairclough, 19.

[32] Savage, 26.

[33] Fairclough, 16.

[34] Doris Pennington. Agnes Macphail: Reformer . (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1990), 23.

[35] Stewart and French, 25.

[36] Black, 11

[37] Knowles, 51.

[38] Farrell, 65 and 130.

[39] Mary L Ross. “Ellen Fairclough: first woman in the cabinet.” Saturday Night . 72, no. 18 (August 31, 1957): 34.

[40] Norcross, 359.

[41] A.B. McKillop. Matters of Mind: The University in Ontario 1791-1951 . (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994),125-27.

[42] Alison Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History. (Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Co., Canada, 1996), 175.

[43] Rachel Wyatt. Agnes Macphail: Champion of the Underdog. (Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 2000), 8.

[44] Reid, 27.

[45] Trofimenkoff, 141.

[46] Carol Hancock. No Small Legacy . Winfield, B.C.: Wood Lake Books, Inc., 1986, 91.

[47] Reid, 11.

[48] Marty Logan. “First female Senate Speaker dies .”  Canadian Press NewsWire . Toronto:  12 April 1997.

[49] Kinnear, 119.

[50] Faiclough, 40.

[51] Logan

[52] Brian Brennan. “A tribute to pioneers of feminism.” Calgary Herald .  Calgary, Alta.:  11 July 1999 , D1.

[53] Barbara Villy Cormack. Perennials and Politics . (Alberta: Professional Printing Ltd., 1968), 57.

[54] Conrad, 13.

[55] Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis. Firing the Heather . (Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 1993): 79, 111, 119

[56] Norcross, 358-59.

[57] Richard Jackson. "First woman speaker”. Atlantic advocate. 63, no. 8 (April 1973): 18. And Peck, 158.

[58] Hallet, 2.

[59] Christine MacDonald. “How Saskatchewan Women got the Vote,” Saskatchewan History 1, no. 3 (1948): 1.

[60] Christine MacDonald, 1.

[61] Hallett, 186.

[62] Sylvia Bashevkin contends that certain gender expectations that maintain males as influential and females as campaign workers, namely “masculine assertiveness and female docility,” still exist within political parties. Sylvia Bashevkin. Toeing the lines: women and party politics in English Canada . (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993), 75.

[63] Brodie “Women and the Electoral Process ,” In Women in Canadian Politics: toward equity in representation . e d. Kathy Megyery. ( Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada and Dundurn Press, 1991), 25; see also Patricia Myers, 1989; Bashevkin, Toeing the lines , 63.

[64] Brodie, 26

[65] Patricia Myers. “A Noble Effort: The National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada.” In Beyond the vote: Canadian women and politics. eds. Linda Kealey and Joan Sangster. (T oronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 1989, 39.

[66] Linda Kealey and Joan Sangster, 7.

[67] Myers, 42.

[68] Myers, 43.

[69] Bashevkin, Toeing the lines , 99.

[70] Hallett, 172.

[71] Myers, 52.

[72] Sylvia Bashevkin, “Women Participation in Political Parties,” in Women in Canadian Politics: toward equity in representation . ed. Kathy Megyery. ( Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada and Dundurn Press, 1991), 74.

[73] Myers, 52.

[74] Brodie, 33.

[75] Donald C Kerr. Western Canadian politics: the radical tradition. ( Edmonton: NeWest Institute for Western Canadian Studies), 1981. (Interviews with Elsie Hart and others).




2004 Second Prize:

“Most People Need Constant Reminders Not To Presume Heterosexuality:” [i]

Institutionalized Heterosexuality, Lesbianism and the

Oppression of Women In The Workforce


Angela Turner

for Women's Studies 251F with Professor Tess Hooks


In this essay I will explore the ways that women have been constrained in the public sphere of paid labour by institutionalized ideals of heterosexuality, and how this ideology of heterosexuality has led to the oppression of all women in the paid labour force and, more specifically, how institutionalized heterosexuality has hindered the rights and freedoms of sexual “others” in the workforce, especially homosexual women. First, I will provide some definitions of institutional heterosexuality, and how it has been utilized and internalized in our society, and in the public sphere of work. Secondly, I will present the ways in which institutionalized heterosexuality oppresses all women in general, by conflating issues of sexism and heterosexism. Lastly I will examine how institutionalized heterosexuality oppresses lesbians who do not fit into the ideal of “normal” sexuality, how the privileging of heterosexuality in our society encourages the denial and oppression of any alternative modes of sexuality, thereby stifling sexual diversity, and freedom.

The main concept that I will take up in this essay is the idea that heterosexuality is a cultural construct and a social institution. A lot of feminist work in the area of social constructs is based on the idea that sex and gender are not necessarily biologically determined, but rather that they are constructed based on our cultural and societal ideals of what a woman is and what a man is (namely that these two categories are completely dichotomous). Not only are the social ideals of masculinity and femininity constructed, they also support a highly problematic system of hierarchies which establishes the privileged status of men over women. When combined with the social construction of heterosexuality, our society ends up with an entire ideological system in which the fundamental building blocks are based on relationships of dominance and subordination between men and women. Adrienne Rich was one of the first feminist theorists to explore the area of compulsory heterosexuality in her article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Her theory looks at the constructed nature of sex and gender, as well as the ways in which our social and cultural ideals help to construct our desire and how we are socialized towards heterosexuality: that it is not necessarily “natural,” or biological (Rich, 1994: 488). To take Rich's theories further, not only are sex, gender and heterosexuality social constructs, heterosexuality has also become a social institution . Gillian A. Dunne, in her book “Lesbian Lifestyles” defines a social institution as:

[The] basic regulatory patterns which order and reflect everyday social activities…. The power of institutions lies in their appearance as objective realities which are universal and legitimate…. They exist as part of the fabric of society and are essential elements for supporting social stability and the reproduction of the status quo…. [Institutions also imply] the illegitimacy of alternative arrangements…. [They] appear as ‘givens' and are supported by belief systems which compromise a range of mutually reinforcing ideologies (1997:12-13).

When heterosexuality becomes a social institution any “alternative” to this normalized institution becomes “deviant,” “other” and therefore unacceptable. The problem is not necessarily with heterosexuality itself, the problem is that through institutionalized heterosexuality women's inequality and subordination to the dominant (white) male is most heavily reinforced. The ideology of heterosexuality is heavily laden with sanctions which privilege and legitimize male power over women. Therefore any study of women's subordination in the public sphere of paid labour should necessarily include an analysis of the ways in which women's power and equality are continually undermined within this problematic hierarchical institution of heterosexuality.


Although the institution of heterosexuality is problematic and fundamental to women's inequality in our society, as well as women's inequality in the public sphere of paid labour, an analysis of the institution of heterosexuality itself has been consistently left out of the readings we have looked at in this course, and in many analyses of women's position in the workforce. In fact, the subject of institutionalized heterosexuality, and the experiences of those outside of this institution (lesbians) have been systematically under-represented in writings about women in the paid labour force. [1] One feminist who has attempted to bridge this gap in research is Gillian A. Dunne. Through her research she:

seeks to build bridges across the different perspectives which inform feminist thinking by showing ways that interpretations of sexuality deeply shape the conditions of women's work, both in the home and in the workplace. Until now, research has considered factors shaping women's work from a heterosexual perspective and this limits our ability to recognize the impact of heterosexuality itself on the conditions of women's lives (1997:2).

In her analysis of “non-heterosexual” (Dunne, 1997:1) women in all aspects of life, work, and the family, Dunne takes the first necessary steps towards questioning the highly problematic, yet fundamental institution of heterosexuality. An analysis of this institution is vital in order to understand women's relative positions of inequality in the labour force, as well as the particularly oppressed positions of lesbian women in the workforce. [2]


With the recognition of heterosexuality as an ideological myth which our culture has institutionalized, we can go on to analyze aspects of our culture that, when heterosexuality is “normalized,” contribute to women's positions of oppression and subordination. We can see this oppression and subordination in many aspects of women's work, especially the wage gap.


In this course we have looked at many statistics that have shown that women, throughout the world and here in Canada, have been denied the same kinds of jobs, job status, wages and full-time opportunities that men have, which would place women and men on more equal playing fields in the workforce(and in the world in general). We have found that, for the most part, the reason for this inequality has little to do with women's inherent or biological inability to do certain jobs that are valued in our society. Rather, our society has certain expectations about women's relationship with paid work. Women's work is consistently valued less than men's work and this value is reflected in the kinds of jobs, the pay, the hours the status, and the benefits that women receive. Ideally within our culture, a woman's role in the public sphere of paid labour is secondary to her role as wife and mother within the heterosexual context of the nuclear family unit. [3] The result of this cultural ideology is that women's position within the paid labour force is less valued and therefore less rewarded in order to reproduce ideals about women's place in the home and the domestic sphere. Dunne's respondents provide evidence of this fact:

[Most of the] women understood marriage to be the inevitable outcome of their assumed heterosexuality. They expected that marriage would involve the rearrangement of priorities, whereby home life and domestic commitments would eclipse employment involvement. For them, marriage represented long-term economic security through access to a higher ‘breadwinning'wage (1997:94).

Women (and men) are expected to engage in heterosexual relationships and produce children, and their wages reflect these expectations: men's pay is primary (so they get paid more), women's pay is secondary (so they get paid less). The assumption is that women will be supported by a man's primary income when she gives up her job to take care of their children. Men's jobs are full-time, while women are more geared towards part-time work (in order to have more time to have kids and take care of the family). All of these aspects of women's (and men's) work are generated with the heterosexual model in mind, and they reproduce specific ideals about masculinity and femininity.

Generally all of these constructed characteristics of women's and men's work are beneficial for heterosexual couples and nuclear families. However these characteristics of work which support the heterosexual “norm” also directly contribute to a significant amount of the inequality and oppression that women face within the paid labour force. This is not only oppressive for heterosexual women (for whom the heterosexual “norm” is adequate), but it is especially oppressive for those women (and men) who fall outside of the heterosexual model: women who do not (or cannot) rely on a man's primary income: lesbian women, and same-sex lesbian couples (as well as single women, single mothers, and women in other “non-traditional,” “non-heterosexual” living arrangements such as siblings, roommates, and so on.

As we have seen, not only does the heterosexual “norm” deny any alternative sexuality, it also oppresses any woman who may be heterosexual, but who does not choose, or want to live in a heterosexual relationship with a man). The conflation of issues of female celibacy (life without men, whether as a choice or merely circumstance) and lesbianism is something that Cavanaugh brings up in her article. Any woman who did not want to be in a relationship with a man, whether she was heterosexual or homosexual, was deemed a sexual deviant in the mid-20 th century (1998: 68). Although the sanctions for such a label were perhaps more severe in the past, I think there is still a lot of stigma and social pressures that are similar in today's society, and within the working world. In this way, it is possible to see how the institution of heterosexuality has problematically structured inequality of women in the public sphere of paid labour, and more specifically how it has alienated and further contributed to the inequality and subordination of lesbians and, in general, any woman who is not actively practicing heterosexuality.


Dunne's analysis of lesbian women in the workforce gives us a perspective on women's lives in the paid labour force, and women in general, which goes beyond the assumptions of the heterosexual norm. She shows that although lesbians are generally oppressed by hetersexualization, women who are outside of the heterosexual ideal can sometimes have a better understanding of the functions of this ideology, and are therefore are more likely to structure their working careers in order to succeed beyond the traditional limits and assumptions of their sex/gender. The lesbians in her study were not limited to thinking of their career moves in relation to the inevitable heterosexual marriage and nuclear family life. In fact Dunne found that:

Sexual identity [often] mediates the effects of gender to support different outcomes in relation to the negotiation of employment opportunities. This will highlight the importance of recognizing the role of institutionalized heterosexuality in constraining women's choices (1997:92).

Therefore, she finds that generally the lesbians within her study [4] had a different “framework of understanding”(Dunne, 1997:99): their positions on the periphery of the heterosexual model meant that they were less entrenched in heterosexual assumptions, and although they were oppressed by the workings of institutionalized heterosexuality, they were also able to structure their career aspirations more freely, without the assumption that they would eventually get married, and give up their jobs to raise their children. The position of lesbians outside the ideology of heterosexuality can sometimes give them insight and choice when it comes to work, and therefore they have a better view of the problematic aspects of this ideology, and the means with which to critique and change them:

[A]ttitudes towards [women's] employment were guided by taken for granted conventional accounts of social reality, where adult womanhood was heterosexual, experienced within the context of marriage, and involved being dependent on a male wage. Within this framework of understanding, the anticipated avenue of escape from dull routine jobs was through attachment to a male breadwinner. Because of powerfully contradictory experience these [lesbian] respondents could no longer anticipate the arrival of a knight in shining armour. Their new understanding of what being an adult woman meant motivated a more self-reliant approach to paid work…. Their changing attitudes and approaches towards employment were very much related to their move beyond heterosexuality (Dunne, 1997:98-99). 

Dunne finds that the lesbian women in her study, because of their sexuality, were able to expand their potential in the labour force beyond the kind of job opportunities that were traditionally available to women. In a way, their sexuality mediated more equal opportunities in the working world. Because lesbians go beyond the possibility of identifying with the heterosexual ideology, they come to an understanding that heterosexual women, who are deeply entrenched within this ideology, might not be able to: they can get out of the cycle of oppression, and strive to find work that allows them more equality: better hours, better pay, better benefits, and higher status. [5]

Yet it can work the other way as well: any woman who attains rewarding and valued employment, or has the option available to her may find it easier to “reconsider the desirability of marriage” (Dunne, 1997:102) and put her career first. This can include a range of women, heterosexual or homosexual, who no longer want to be burdened by the weight of compulsory heterosexuality and/or economic dependence. A study for Statistics Canada found that “women's personal earnings are positively related to the likelihood of separation”(Wu and Pollard, 1999:26) from a heterosexual, common-law partner. Furthermore, this study found that:

Increased social resources for women, in addition to economic resources, also appear to decrease the probability of marriage, illustrated by full-time semi-professional and skilled employee status increasing separation [Tables 1 and 2]. For women with these resources available, marriage may be less desirable, or separation from bad unions may be facilitated (Wu and Pollard, 1999:26). 

For heterosexual woman, greater economic resources generally mean that dependence on a male breadwinner is no longer necessary. Unfortunately these “resources” are available to only an elite group of women (who can afford the education in order to get the “career-line” job that can propel them into economic independence). [6]

There is no denying that women's access to better employment and better wages is fundamental to improving all women's equality in the paid labour force and the world at large (even within women's heterosexual relationships with men). The fundamental problem of institutionalized heterosexuality is not only that it limits women's success within the working world, but that it also limits women's choice of sexuality, and subsequently reduces women's opportunities to question their positions of relative subordination in relation to men and within the paid labour force.

[A]ccess to rewarding and challenging jobs provide[s] the economic possibility of living outside dependent relationships with men. It also offer[s] a positive alternative social identity to that of wife and mother. For these respondents a lesbian lifestyle was seen to facilitate the pursuit of their careers (Dunne, 1997:107).

Lesbians are less likely to take for granted the heterosexual myth of women being taken care of by a primary male breadwinner, therefore we can see the ways in which a “lesbian lifestyle necessitat[es] and/or facilitat[es] economic independence” (Dunne, 1997:119). Lesbians tend to have access to better employment and wages (and therefore more economic independence) compared to heterosexual women, yet this still does not necessarily mean that lesbians are being paid wages that are equal to men's wages (Dunne, 1997:127).

Even within the realm of traditionally “masculine” jobs, women still tend to make less than their equally skilled male counterparts: men still consistently earn “breadwinning wages” while women's wages are generally consistent with secondary wages. This leaves women in economically vulnerable positions in our society. Since most women's wages are barely enough to support them, women are basically forced into dependency on heterosexual male partners (married or common law) in order to survive. Indeed as a Statistics Canada study shows, when (presumably heterosexual) women are able to earn enough money for their economic independence, they are more likely to dissolve their common-law (heterosexual) living situations with men:

[W]omen's economic circumstances contribute significantly to the stability of Canadian cohabitations. Women's economic circumstances primarily affect the probability of separation. Increased economic and social resources make marriage less desirable [Table 2], or facilitate the dissolution of unions [Table 1] (Wu and Pollard, 1999:27).

Women's financial dependence on men merely contributes to their positions of subordination in a patriarchal heterosexist culture which relies on the two separate dichotomous, hierarchical roles for men and women. In this way we see how wages themselves are set up to support our societal ideal of institutionalized heterosexuality (because generally women cannot survive economically without dependence on men).

While most studies of the current wage gap (such as that done by Marie Drolet for Statistics Canada) may take many factors into consideration to determine why this wage gap occurs, there is still a significant amount of data missing in order to come up with a definitive reason for the discrepancies between women's pay and men's pay. As Drolet finds: “a substantial portion of the gender wage gap cannot be explained” (1997:32). However, Dunne found that lesbian women, as workers, whether in committed homosexual relationships or not, choose their employment based neither on “social expectations to be primary breadwinners, nor by the constraints associated with being secondary earners” (1997:176). In this way it is possible to see the role of lesbians in the paid labour force has potential to defy the socially constructed dichotomy of male and female roles as workers.

To defy women's traditional role as a secondary earner is one positive way in which women can also defy the institutionalized heterosexuality that structures the working world. The fact that the wage gap cannot be entirely explained in mainstream statistical studies may have something to do with the heterosexist assumptions of the researchers or those that they study. Perhaps what the study by Drolet (and others like it) is missing is the extent to which our entire culture has internalized heterosexuality and all of its sanctions. Perhaps that which we cannot account for in women's consistently lower wages in Canada , is partly a product of this ideology of heterosexuality which we are too deeply entrenched in to effectively critique. Perhaps research such as Dunne's on the lesbian experience of paid work, and the pervasive oppressive qualities of institutional heterosexuality are necessary in order to bring about a new perspective on the wage gap in Canada and around the world.

As this essay has tried to show, absolute exclusion of any identity within any discipline is problematic because it ends up setting a precedence of “normalcy.” In this case, the taken-for-granted position of heterosexuality has resulted in the ultimate exclusion of representations of “other” forms of sexuality, namely lesbianism. But by going against tradition and analyzing the experiences and positions of subordination of these so-called “others” within patriarchal heterosexist arena of paid labour, we can see the definite ways in which lesbian women are oppressed by this normalized, internalized and institutionalized heterosexist tradition in the workforce. However, we can also see how institutionalized heterosexuality contributes to the oppression of all women. Gillian A. Dunne's analysis of lesbian experience is very important to this line of research because it:

…illuminates the need to extend our analysis of women's disadvantaged employment circumstances beyond gender to include the significance of interpretations of sexuality. To fail to do this is to perpetuate the belief that women equals heterosexual and to ignore the material and ideological processes which construct heterosexual outcomes. Instead, we need to recognize the extent to which gendered attitudes and experiences are shaped and expressed through beliefs, values and practices supporting institutional heterosexuality (1997:102).

Thus, the inclusion of lesbian issues into the study of women's oppression in the workforce, and the wage gap is important, perhaps even necessary , in order to see the full spectrum of oppression that women— all women —face. All women are different and unique, and inhabit different identities, and these vastly different women are also oppressed differently in their daily lives. It is important to consider all the ways that these different oppressions affect all women differently. This means that we need to analyze and consider, not only the “norm” of heterosexuality but also issues of homosexuality. [7] There is no “universal” woman, and therefore the issues of all women must be acknowledged in order to truly understand women's position of subordination and oppression in the world at large, as well as within women's roles in the paid labour force.



Table 1.



Source: Wu, Zheng, and Michael Pollard, The Income and Labour Dynamics Working Paper Series: Economic Circumstances And The Stability Of Nonmarital Cohabitation, catalogue no. 98-10 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1997) 19, Table 3.

Table 2.


Source: Wu, Zheng, and Michael Pollard, The Income and Labour Dynamics Working Paper Series: Economic Circumstances And The Stability Of Nonmarital Cohabitation, catalogue no. 98-10 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1997) 23, Table 5.




Cavanagh, Sheila L.

•  “The Heterosexualization Of The Ontario Woman Teacher In The Postwar Period” in Canadian Women's Studies: Women And Work 18:1.


Drolet, Marie

•  The Persistent Gap: New Evidence On The Canadian Gender Wage Gap . Ottawa : Minister of Industry. Cat. No. 75F002MIE - 99008.


Dunne, Gillian A.

•  Lesbian Lifestyles: Women's Work And The Politics of Sexuality . Toronto :University of Toronto Press.


Khayatt, Didi

•  “In And Out: Experiences In The Academy” in Resist! Essays Against A Homophobic Culture , eds. Mona Oikawa, Dionne Falconer, and Ann Decter. Toronto : Women's Press.


Rich, Adrienne

•  “Compulsory Heterosexuality And Lesbian Existence” in Living with Contradicitions: Controversies In Feminist Social Ethics , ed. Alison M. Jagger. Boulder , Colorado : Westview Press.


Wu, Zheng, and Michael Pollard

•  Economic Circumstances And The Stability Of Nonmarital Cohabitation . Ottawa : The Income and Labour Dynamics Working Paper Series. Cat. No. 98-10.


[1] Khayatt, 1994: 210. This fact became painfully clear to me as I was searching for research for this topic.

[2] Dunne finds that when heterosexuality becomes institutionalized and taken for granted as “normal” and “natural,” it effects the kind of work women aspire to: “In light of the structural limitations on [women's] entry into meaningful and adequately paid work, they may well have every reason to adhere to the belief that adult female status is achieved via a taken for granted heterosexual journey to marriage and motherhood.”(18-19)

[3] Perhaps we could even go so far as to say that these two roles are seen as contradictory, or dichotomous.

[4] Although this is by no means universally or essentially true of all lesbians.

[5] This is not to say that lesbians are the only ones who can recognize this problematic institution, or that all lesbians do realize it, just that they have a vested interest in their own success in the paid labour force because they are denied the option of male dependency.

[6] Not only are there class limits, but generally racial implications to which women can “choose” a career (I use the term choice here loosely).

[7] As well as issues of class, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and so on.



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