Respectable Citizens: Gender, Family and Unemployment in Ontario’s Great Depression By Lara Campbell – A Review Lara Campbell’s, professor of history at Simon Frasier University, book Respectable Citizens: Gender, Family and Unemployment in Ontario’s Great Depression (published in 2009) provides a thoroughly researched look at an often looked over topic in regards to the Great Depression; gender. Her beginning introductory chapter sets the focus of this book and she takes time to consider the strengths and weaknesses of her thoroughly used sources.
This overview of the book provides the reader with a well formatted look into her topics of discussion; namely the aspects of the welfare state, labour, and gender identity and understanding. Campbell divides her book into five primary chapters; each of which discuss a variety of issues and themes supplemented thoroughly with examples of accounts. Chapter one demonstrates the vital role which women, particularly as mothers, played within the home in order to ensure economic survival. Additionally, this chapter discusses the influence and importance of society’s view of just what a “good wife/mother” was including class differences.
Survival through domestic work (e. g. nutrition, clothing, keeping house, budgeting) and informal labour (e. g. taking in laundry, sewing, prostitution, taking boarders) served as staples for women and mothers alike during this era. Campbell also discusses and provides insights on the matters of single motherhood, employed married women – who were largely subject to public ire for taking the jobs of men especially if their husband also had a job– and women deserting their families. This chapter, much like the second focuses on the roles, duties and expectations placed upon women and men in regards to their families.
Chapter two continues on such topic with its focus being on men. This particular chapter demonstrates the stresses placed upon the family as men — the quinticental “bread-winners” — were increasingly unable to fill their role and were forced to endure searches for work and resulted in demands of social entitlement. Campbell spends particular attention to the humiliation of men in accepting relief money and as well as the concept of being unable to provide and fill their role as husbands and fathers leading to suicide.
Chapter three canvases the contributions and involvements of the youth with their families through, primarily, informal and formal labour along with theft and black market dealings. It can be seen in this chapter the weighting of school against economic need; many for going schooling due to lack of clothing, supplies and duty to the family. As the chapter progresses Campbell demonstrates the requirements placed upon the sons and daughters even as they reached adulthood and the conflicts it generated between parent and child through the various acts employed by the state (e. . Parents Maintenance Act). The subject of illegitimate children and abortions is also discussed as Campbell portrays the effect the Depression had upon marriage rates. Chapters four and five, much like chapters one and two, share similarities in their subject matter; both chapters discuss protect, state policy and provision at length. In chapter four Campbell focuses on the stresses and their effects on both men and women in the home, including domestic abuse, and towards the state (e. g. eviction protests, meetings and political mobilization).
Chapter five builds on the themes of protests toward the state and the variables of such things as gender (largely traditional in nature), ethnicity and class that shaped such matters like child welfare and rightful claims. By large Campbell explores the identity of Canadians during the Great Depression through gender and family. She depicts and discusses the traditional notions of the “Bread-Winner” husband and the “Good” wife and mother; both characters that provide and sustain the families in vital ways and the reflection the trials of the era presented such “Respectable Citizens” with.
The main method of asserting these notions being through her extensive use of accounts from government documents, court records, newspapers, memoirs, plays, and interviews with women and men who lived in Ontario during the 1930s. Campbell’s focus on the hardships faced during the economic crisis allows for one to neatly achieve insight into the gendered dynamics that took place within the families of Ontario’s lives. She draws less so on the notion of Canadian “Britishness” but more so on how such a foundation influenced the actions of the people in what was to be perceived as the fundamental aspects of the man and women of the house.
Campbell’s focus on the family-sphere demonstrates not only aspects of class structure and gender norms but the state’s view on them. She reports that often mothers were the unsung heads of house that not only fed, cleaned, clothed and nurtured but took stock of every item and ensured that every penny eared or received was used to its full capacity (this aspect being the chief discussion topic in chapter one). Additionally, she presents the societal view of class standards of women as the consumers of society.
Poor or low class women often lectured on the supposed simplicities of keeping house and, perhaps famously, “making do”, while the middle to high class women were reportedly encouraged to spend what money was available to them for the purpose of keeping the Canadian market going as opposed to their counterparts who praised for “making a dollar do the work of five” (as praised by the father of Mary Cleevson about his wife on page 26 of Campbell’s book). Campbell also goes into detail of the effectiveness of the various acts put in place during the 1930s to supplement earnings and the survivability of a family.
These entitlements, while for a number of men were seen as humiliating to receive as it was a show against their ability to provide , served to identify that which adult (primarily parents) were entitled too by virtue of some nature of service. The Parent’s Maintenance Act is a good example of this; a parent or set of parents were able to call upon the court and demand payment due to them from their adult children under the basis that their sons and daughters owed a debt to them simply for being their parents.
There were of course, as Campbell does not fail to provide examples for, cases in which the adult children were unable to pay due to personal circumstance or out of refusal by way of seeing their parent (particular the father) as lazy—such as the mentioned case of 52 year old Harry Bartram in June of 1937 who was denied by one of his three sons the five dollar weekly payment under such a claim (as seen on page 98 of Respectable Citizens). Finally, Campbell’s demonstrates the somewhat charming penchant Canadians appear to have for complaining.
Within the chapters of Respectable Citizens one is shown various instances in which wives and mothers of all sorts take the community’s moral fiber into their own hands through acts such as calling the police on those suspected of prostitution, theft and selling on the black market and sending letters to the Primers of Ontario of the time George Henry (1930-34) and Mitchell Hepburn (1934-42) of the hardships that must face. It is this activism that becomes a part of the identity that builds into eviction protests, meetings and committees and political mobilization.
Lara Campbell’s book contributes to the understanding of Canadian history and identity of the affectionately named “Dirty Thirties” by taking the opportunity to look past the issues of hunger and job loss alone and onto the people more specifically. While she does take time to emphasize the job loss and economic crisis of the decade, she applies those factors in making an effort to comprehend society’s reaction and how that reaction reflects upon gender roles and family.
This analysis clearly reveals aspects of the Canadian welfare state through well-developed topics and examples, providing a comfortable read for any who should chose to read this book. The discussion of state policy, relief efforts, labour and social movements as well as they altered family dynamic of the era allows for a clear understanding on a human level. Bibliography Campbell, Lara. Respectable Citzens: Gender, Family and Unemployment in Ontario’s Great Depression. (University of Toronto Press: 2009).
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