Food, Flowers, and Fancywork: Fashioning, Negotiating, and Expanding the Roles of Women in Ontario Agricultural Societies and Fairs, 1846-1980

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Nurse-Gupta, Jodey
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University of Guelph

This dissertation examines women’s experiences in Ontario agricultural societies and fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and provides further confirmation for the complexity of rural women’s lives. It contributes to the historiographical debates that surround rural feminism, rural reform, and fairs as tools of hegemony. Most studies focus on provincial, national, and international exhibitions where bourgeois cultural hierarchies were reinforced; this thesis examines fairs at the county and township level where local residents organized these events and ensured their interests were represented. It is argued that women used the fair’s manifold nature to present a variety of identities, some which supported socially constructed notions of feminine behaviour and womanhood, and others that worked to dismantle them. How women presented themselves depended on the things they exhibited, the activities they took part in, and the service they provided. This study relies on traditional documentary material, such as newspapers, government publications, agricultural society minutes, membership records, published prize lists, and photographs. Surviving artifacts that women exhibited at fairs were also used to demonstrate how rural women created objects that represented their values, commemorated their achievements, and assisted in forming their identities. To capture women’s opinions in their own words, diaries and oral history were also employed. Most women participated at fairs to showcase their loyalty to elements of traditional rural womanhood: familial and communal cooperation, hard work, and thrift. Some sought to display middle-class respectability and taste. Yet others sought to move outside of prescribed boundaries of femininity and display their strength, courage, leadership, and individuality. Women could push the boundaries of social convention and empower and improve their circumstances. They did so in a variety of ways, including displaying their work and abilities as worthy of attention and enlarging their sphere of influence by increasing their mobility and visibility in spaces that had previously been limited to men. Women took advantage of opportunities caused by war, depression, and social change to achieve more authority and further negotiate and expand their interests in and outside of the fairgrounds.

Ontario, Rural history, Agricultural societies and fairs, Women, Exhibitions, Volunteerism, Community, Crops, Fruit, Vegetables, Dairy products, Canned goods, Baked goods, Flowers, Domestic manufactures, Fancywork, Art, Livestock, Cattle, Horses, 4-H, Food booths, Fundraising, Performers, Fair Queen contests, Baby Shows, Recreation, Rural feminism, Rural reform, Agricultural and domestic improvement