Modernity's in the pudding: Towards an understanding of women's material contributions and responses to modern domestic ideals and practices in the Ottawa Valley

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Scott, Katherine Anne
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University of Guelph

The first part of the twentieth century witnessed an earnest attempt to draw rural women into Ontario's modern project. Reformers in various walks of life believed that women could improve the quality of their work, their workplace, and their families by abandoning the backwards and unscientific advice of their mothers for the scientifically-based and bureaucratically-managed advice of modern experts. These aspirations were not necessarily new to modernity but were perfected through its new sources of knowledge. What has been left less clear in historical understanding is the extent to which women heeded this call. As much of we know about what reformers sought to replace came from reformers themselves, historians relying on them as primary sources were left with a skeletal understanding of a supposed feminine domestic "tradition." In this view, intergenerational knowledge was posited as a backward-looking inheritance based on faulty intuition and wives tales that lead to unhealthy, inefficient, ineffective, or even dangerous domestic practices. This thesis counters such a portrayal by showing that Ontario's rural women embraced much of what the modern project had to offer, but in doing so, they melded new skills with those imparted through their apprenticeship within the home and community. This dissertation examines many of the ideas and theories that have been used to frame our understanding of modernity and what it aspired to replace. It then turns to the experiences of women themselves in order to understand how they lived, understood, and negotiated these ideas. Through a focus on the oral histories of women in Ontario's Ottawa Valley region, earlier dichotomous frameworks that helped to shape our understanding of "tradition" are challenged in a way that demythologizes the past of rural women. Interviews are analyzed alongside the qualitative data collected by sociologist Helen Abell and her government-sponsored survey of rural families at mid-century. A case study of continuity and changes within a specific quilting community in the Ottawa Valley is used to illustrate how rural women navigated domestic knowledge and skill.

women, Ottawa Valley, material contributions, modern domestic ideals, modern domestic practices