Women and Land-Based Industries
The growth of land-based industries during the first half of the 20th century helped alter the traditional role of some women in Newfoundland and Labrador society. Unlike the salt-cod fishery, where women helped cure fish and contributed much to the household income, there was virtually no place for the female worker in the new forestry and mining industries. Paper mills, logging operations, and mines hired almost exclusively male workers, leaving women with few employment options outside the domestic and retail spheres.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-315.063), Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
The new industries created a sharp divide between home and work that did not exist in fishing outports, where the entire family played a part in the processing of fish, the growing of vegetables, and the tending of any livestock. Residents in new industrial towns, like Buchans and Grand Falls, had to rent company-owned property, which marginalized the subsistence household and diminished women’s contributions to their family’s earnings. As a result, company towns helped divide the family unit into male breadwinners and female dependents.
Women living in rural Newfoundland and Labrador during the first half of the 20th century performed a variety of tasks that contributed much to their household’s overall income. This included tending the garden, curing fish, and taking care of any cows, goats, and other livestock the family may have owned. It was also not uncommon for women to share a variety of jobs with other members of the family, including their husbands.
Many rural families owned large vegetable gardens, which contributed to the household’s overall income. All family members helped tend the crops. The men did the digging, while women removed stones from the soil, planted the seeds, and weeded the garden regularly. It was also the woman’s job to dry and preserve vegetables for winter consumption. If a family owned any cows or goats, the women made butter from the milk.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Maritime History Archive (PF-314.054), Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
The economic backbone of most outport households, however, was the family-based salt-cod fishery. This allowed people to earn credit from the merchant or, less commonly, cash from other buyers. While men did the fishing, women helped split and salt the catch. They also spread the fish to dry on flakes, but had to take the product inside at night or during rainy weather. This was important work as the quality of the cure determined how much the cod could fetch at the marketplace and how much the family would earn.
Women played a very minimal role in the economies of the new land-based industries. Mining companies, logging operations, and paper mills hired predominantly male employees. As a result, work in company towns no longer revolved around the family unit as it did in fishing communities. Because the industrial model provided few employment opportunities for women, men often became the sole providers for their families.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 16.03.001), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
Many women moved to industrial centres after their husbands obtained employment at the local mine or mill. As a result, women often had to leave their neighbours and families to live in a company-run town where they had little to contribute. This not only placed them in a position of dependence on a male breadwinner in an unfamiliar community, but also made it difficult for them to mix with potential friends. Unlike men, women were largely confined to the domestic sphere and had no coworkers who could help ease their entry into the community. Women, like everyone else, had to receive permission from the company to move into most industrial towns and, once there, had to rent company property, giving them even less control over their lives.
Although some women did obtain work in company towns, it was usually in the lower-paying fields of domestic and retail work. Employment of this nature could sometimes become oppressive in industrial centres, where one’s boss was often one’s landlord. As a result, the company held significant control over its employees’ lives.
The extent of this control became evident after officials from the Department of Agriculture visited the mining town of Buchans in 1929. In his report to the government, K.M. Brown writes of a widow and her daughter who arrived at Buchans to work as domestic servants for the mine’s manager, J.W. Williams, but quit because they did not “like conditions in his household.” The widow moved to St. John’s for employment, but the daughter remained at Buchans to work for the Royal Stores Staff House. Williams, however, ordered the woman out of Buchans and forbade the Staff House from hiring her again.
The company’s control over the community sometimes diminished the value of women’s work around her home as well. Although many households continued to maintain vegetable gardens in industrial centres, the presence of company-owned stores lessened their importance. In rural Newfoundland and Labrador, families grew vegetables not only to supplement their income, but also as a means of survival. With few local markets and shops available to families in outport communities, they often had to grow their own vegetables or go without. This was not the case in industrial towns like Corner Brook and Grand Falls, where workers could buy food and other goods at stores using the money men earned at the mines and paper mills.
Not all people who found employment in the new land-based industries moved to industrial centres. Some men continued to fish in the summer, but worked for mining or paper companies on a seasonal basis to supplement their income. This was often the case with loggers, who worked at various logging camps each winter to supply paper mills at Grand Falls and Corner Brook with lumber. Work of this nature was difficult and often required the men to leave their homes for up to six months at a time. This placed tremendous pressure on the woman, who had to look after the children, house, and land alone.
By excluding female labour, land-based industries made it difficult for some women to contribute to their household’s income. Men became the major and often sole provider for the rest of the family. Although some women found work in industrial centres, it was almost exclusively in the lower paying domestic and retail spheres. The growth of wage labour and accompanying shift away from the family-based saltfishery also devalued some subsistence work women traditionally performed, such as tending the garden.