Book Review about Canadian Working Class Women

BookReview about Canadian Working Class Women

Theexperience of women during the period of the great depression isrepresented by the work of two writers that are discussed in thispaper. ‘The Tin Flute` by Gabrielle Roy is a fiction portrays theconditions of working women in the St. Henri district in Montrealduring the period of the great depression. The ‘BreadwinningDaughters` by Katrina Srigley is the systematic and scholarly studyof working women in Toronto. Their work pays a close attention on theview of the women about their roles in the family and the society atlarge.

Thetwo scholars have used different language, and their settings of thestudy were different. However, their ideas give a special focus onthe limitations imposed on women during that time. Their study alsogives the feature of the social constraints and poverty lines placedon women by a society that was controlled by hegemonic patriarchalvalues. The discussion and comparison in this paper will illustratethat the account of Katrina Srigley in ‘Breadwinning Daughters`gives a superior reflection of the Canadian working women in 1930s,that that of Gabrielle Roy in “The Tin Flute.”

FamilyEconomies as a Major Theme

Thefamily economies were based on the breadwinner-housewife model, wherea man is the sole breadwinner, and the wife is a housewife. The womanwas limited to housework while the man was involved in income earningactivities outside the family (Roy 118). The great depression broughtthe poverty and made the families lower their spending. Severalpeople lost their jobs, including men who were the sole breadwinners.This period created opportunities to enter into the public sphere tooffer paid labor. In situations where men in the working classfamilies were unable to provide, the family support was turned to theyoung working women. This situation created a shift in familypatterns. The economic difficulties prompted some men, and womenabandon their families. Others opted not to enter into family lifeand instead adopted different avenues of from the working classfamily economies. Patriarchy and male aggression denied women theliberty to make their life choices (Srigley 404).


Theeconomic depression of 1930s was a fatal phenomenon that left asorrowful tore on the Canadian families. The society rode onhegemonic notions that placed the man at the top of the family,simply because the man was the sole breadwinner. The situation waschallenged by unemployment and underemployment that rocked thenation. The cultural standings that defamed the female gender beganto change their configuration. Several families started relying onwomen as the sole family providers. Most employers preferred to hirewomen and children and children because they offered labor at lowwages. There were very few jobs on offer, and only a handful ofpeople could secure working opportunities. In Toronto, for example,there were open opportunities for women to enter into jobs and veryfew, or none was available for men.

Inthe Breadwinner Daughters, Srigley writes about Claire Clarke.Clark`s father was the main breadwinner in the family. With the onsetof the great depression, his working hours were reduced, making himlook for alternative employment during his off hours. Clarke’smother intervened in providing for the family with the incomes sheearned from the seamstress work she did from home (Srigley 792). Thissituation created a toll on the family and being an afro-Canadianfamily they could not avoid prejudice from the society. Clarkeclerical training, but she only found a job in a small hat factory,and she ended up taking a seamstress job, just like her mother. Thus,every member of the family contributed to the family income, eventhough it could not cover all the expenses.

Bothwriters portray daughters are more responsible in family matters thanthe sons. According to Srigley, sons did not face any expectations athome, but the daughters contribute much in terms of the housework andfinancial support. In an interview with Grace Michaels, she explainsthat she cares for their younger siblings, including her brother whois older and enjoys more freedom than her (Srigley 980). When Eugenereturned home on leave from the army service, he borrowed the tendollars his mother had kept. He promised to spend a portion of, andrepay it back. Eugene is seen tossing coins to the children, an issuethat greatly pains his mother. Despite the promise, there is noevidence of Eugene returning this money (Roy 242).

Gabrielletook a critical examination of the moral influence for a daughter tocontribute to family income. She wrote about Florentine Lacasse, whoshe portrayed a true model of the ‘breadwinner daughter.’Florentine worked as a waitress at Rue Nortre-Dame in St. Henri.Throughout her work, Gabrielle portrays Florentine as the only personwho enjoys steady income that benefits the family. Her contributionto the family is influenced by the ethical motive as explained byGabrielle:

“…ThenFlorentine, seeing her mother relaxed and almost happy felt a tenfolddesire to add to the joy she had already given her. She reached intoher blouse and took out two new bills. She’d been keeping them tobuy stockings, and the moment her hand touched the crisp paper, shefelt a terrible regret, but she sighed and held her hand out to hermother… She was thinking: I am good to my mother. I`ll get it back.It`ll be continued to my favor. She was still sad at giving up hersilk stockings, but she felt a new certainty that she would be happyimmediately…” (Roy 118).

Gabrielledraws a contrast between the income contribution made in the familyof Florentine and her brother Eugene. Eugene serves in the army anddirects his $20 bonus to her mother. Rose-Anna Lacasse is strappedfor cash as before, but she manages to keep the ten dollars foremergency. Her family is yet to be evicted from a rental home becausethey have been unable to pay rent. Rose-Anna keeps the ten dollars inanticipation of rent payment in case her husband Lacasse does notget a job (Roy 242).

Familyeconomies were also characterized by abandonment, where men and womenleft their families. Due to financial difficulties, familyabandonment was an easy option for some people. Gabrielle uses hercharacters to expose this… For example, Aszarius, who is anexperienced carpenter, is as contemplating leaving his wife andwalking away.

&quot…Hesaw himself picking his bundle and making off before his wifereturned. He`d jump a flight, train and go for a job in the mines. Orhe`d just start off along the St. James Street until he was out ofthe town, and there he`d take the highway until fortune smiled to himat last… He wished he had no wife, no family, no roof over hishead… He wished for the dawn that could find him a free man with noties, no care, no love…” (Roy 160).

However,Aszarius takes the job offered to him and retreats to his family tofulfill paternal obligations in a way that was comfortable to him.

JeanLevesque, on the other hand, forsakes all attachments and opts tolive by himself. Jean and Florentine enter into a romanticrelationship. The two went ahead to consummate this relationship andfinally, Florentine gets pregnant with Jean’s child. Jean decidesto leave Montreal even before he discovered the results of theirengagement. According to Roy, Jean’s emotions could be compared toa “cast of a load of ballast” (Roy 217). In the Canadian culture,abandonment was not accepted from any gender. Women, particularly,who abandoned their families were never treated with dignity, and itwas very rare to find a woman who has abandoned their families. Tomen, however, this was a constant phenomenon. In 1930s, desertion wason an increasing trend in Ontario, with men leaving their families.However, there were few cases of women leaving their families. HellenCampbell and Geraldine Windeatte were left by their mother atteenage. The two sisters had to bear with family responsibilities,save the detestation, they received from the community. MargretRadfourth, on the other hand, faced a similar difficulty followingher mother’s desertion when she was the age of 12. She wascompelled to play the role of a “substitute mother,” having theburden of raising three other siblings. She was compelled to look fora factory job in order to sustain the family (Srigley 1022).

Srigleywrote to expose the double standard between men and women pertainingto desertion in the concept of “scientific motherhood.” The childpsychologists, social workers and other professionals of that timeadvocated the importance of parents instilling beneficial qualitiessuch as morality and citizenship to their children. The courts tookover the campaign and started to advocate family unity, as opposed tothe dissertation. The family courts in Ontario sought to strengthenthe family unit. The judges developed the hegemonic views and urgedthe men to &quotgo home and take the leadership in the house, act asa man&quot (Srigley 1045).

Inthis era, married women were not allowed to work. Women had to make achoice whether to get married or to commit themselves to a career.When a working woman got married, she was made to abandon her careerand committed herself to family life. In both writings, some womenfound it easy to choose a career and stay unmarried. Srigley’scharacter, Margret Gairns had a Master of Arts degree. She wasbrought up in a middle-class family in Toronto. Gairns found ateaching job that was fulfilling to her. She chose not to get marriedand pursue her career. Srigley notes that the choice was easy becauseshe was not ready to abandon her career for the sake of the marriage(Srigley 906).

Gabrielleuses the character of Yvonne Lacasse tom expose a similar rejectionof marriage. Yvonne is Florentine`s sister who is never interested inmaterial things. She commits her life to pleasing God and serving inthe Catholic Church. Yvonne shares her plans of avoiding marriage andinstead become a nun or a nursing sister and believes that eitherwill be pleasing to God (Roy 360). Gairns and Yvonne represent theconfrontation of choices faced by some women in that time. Whereasmany were torn between the options, some found it easy to settle adecision to stay unmarried and pursue their career goals. Some werenot willing to be dependent on men and be reduced to housewives,especially in the economic situation of the time.


Srigleynoted that family abandonment was a more serious social vice thanphysical abuse. In Toronto, children of the working class parentsthought it was fairer to be abandoned by a parent because physicalabuse in unified families was common. However, the society acceptedphysical abuse as a form of discipline that was believed to keep thefamily together and instill discipline to the children. Jean Jacksonexplained his situation and preferred that parents were apart.

&quotIfound it very hard. I was just about a nervous wretch… but that isthe way it was, and it would have been much better if they could havejust gone their own ways&quot (Srigley 1172).

Gabriellementioned little about physical abuse. Rose-Anna was promised by hermother-in-law that Aszarius would be a &quotmild husband.&quot Shewas told that Aszarius was not a man who could direct anger to her,except a few faults that are common to man and that are worthyforgiving. She says, &quotYou will never hear one word louder thananother. And that is worth forgiving a few faults&quot (Roy 87).

Roytakes a different path in exposing the role of boys in the family.According to Roy, there are notable exceptions, such as the Italianimmigrant, Rocco Longo, whose mother depends on him for householdtasks. However, this was not the norm in the wider Canadian culture.

ClassConsciousness as a Major Theme

Classconsciousness was characterized by self-repugnance of the time.Poverty was like a fluid concept that could describe somebody aseither better off or worse off. Respectability and shame were themajor concepts attributed to this notion. In 1930s, respectabilitywas the central issues of concern for the working class women, evenwhen they were confronted by abject poverty. Shame was characterizedby pervasive fatalism as demonstrated in the rhetoric`s posed by thecharacters in the Roy`s work.


Theeconomic pattern of the time brought mixed outcomes. Severalopportunities were created in cities, but these opportunities camealongside problems among the working women. The growth of cities suchas Montreal and Toronto, and the expansion of industries came hand inhand with heightened poverty. Srigley notes that working women in1930s graduated from being a &quotgirl problem of being &quotdutifuldaughters&quot (Srigley 404). Women began to appear in the publicsphere, and jobs for women were increasing time after time throughoutthe decade. Families in the rural areas were growing smaller,reflecting the influx of people in cities, with the promise of jobsto the young women. There was a common perception that any woman thatis seeking permanent employment has given up their desire to get amarriage partner and leave the work for men (Srigley 429). Thebreadwinner ideal was challenged and threatened. The women inSrigley’s work are concerned with meeting the financial needs tocover the financial gap created by men’s unemployment andunderemployment.

Roy’scharacter Rose-Anna seems to be unaware of the financial positionthey faced until she goes to Saint-Dennis, the rural home where shewas brought up. A contrast is made between her children who were paleand skinny and the children in the country who were healthy andbouncy (plump). Her mother had warned her from following her husbandto the city “You may think you are running away from poverty… butyou may mark my words: poverty finds us out” (Srigley 498).Rose-Anna’s mother, Laplante, alludes that despite the effort anindividual may put in order to move from one situation to another,suffering is unavoidable. The Tune Flute is saturated with classconsciousness as opposed to class consciousness.

Accordingto Roy, class awareness is characterized by shame. When Rose-Annawanders in the streets of St. Henri looking for accommodation for herfamily, she is drawn into Workman Street. The workman street was adirty and filthy street for the homeless. Rose-Anna declines tosettle in Workman Street, but the house that her husband found wasbelow the standard of the working class. There are a lot of noisesmade by the trains that makes conversation impossible (Roy 198).Respectability and shame were of central concern to Srigley`scharacters. McLean`s family was unable to buy books to keep him andher sister in school. Her mother advises her to tell the schoolprincipal that her family was on relief. McLean finds it shaming topass that to the message to the principal. Finally, McLean drops outof school. Her chance to learn skills that could enable her earnmoney were severely hampered (Roy 95).

Awoman`s respectability was explained by her clothing. Srigley`sinterviewee, Ivy Philips, had the ability to use a sewing machine tomake dresses for her sisters, which were fashionable, but lessexpensive compared to the economic depression of the time. On theother hand, Clair Clarke was not successful in making clothes fromhome. Being a black woman, Clarke found it difficult to land a whitecollar job (Srigley 570). Roy’s character, Florentine, isambivalent about the party dress made for her by her mother. Sheanticipates using the dress to impress the young men in the houseparty. Florentine was much appreciated for the dress, but she wasashamed of admitting that she never bought a dress and instead it wasmade for her by the mother. &quotIt was as if she denied Rose-Anna`swork… That was an end to her belief that she had a pretty dress.Now she knew it was a poor girl`s dress&quot (Roy 133).


Thesocial and economic structures of the Canadian cities during thegreat depression era limited the women from exercising theirindependence. The concept of the breadwinner – housewife model waspopular at the time. Married women were made to stay in abusiverelationships, doing the housework and taking care of the family.Married women were not allowed into paid labor and were insteadexpected to rely on the provision of their husbands. The changingeconomic patterns challenged the economic and social structures. Theeconomic depression made some men lose their jobs, and others wereunemployed. The economic situation forced the women to look for jobsin order to bridge the gap in the family expenses. This situationchanged with the economic standing and elevated the women into“breadwinning daughters.”

Daughterswere portrayed to be more responsible than the sons. Daughters tookthe responsibility of meeting the family financial needs as well ascarrying the household duties. Both Srigley and Gabrielle demonstratethis phenomenon through the characters of Grace, Michael andFlorentine respectively. The social and economic structure is brokenwhen women find the autonomy and ability to make their own choices,whether to get into marriage of follow their career, as demonstratedby Yvonne and Gairns. However, the two writers have a slightdisagreement on the responsibility of the sons. While Eugene isportrayed as responsible, Rocco Longo helps his mother to carry outhousehold tasks. Both writers agree on the issue of familyabandonment that was common during the time.

ThoughGabrielle Roy’s ‘The Tin Flute` is a fiction writing, it offers areflection of the life of the Canadian women during the period ofgreat depression. However, the ‘Breadwinning Daughters” gives asuperior reflection because it was written from real experiences ofwomen as they were interviewed by Srigley. Thus, BreadwinningDaughters” is superior to ‘The Tune Flute.’ Roy missed on someaspects such as the role of the boys because she never wrote any oftheir positive contributions. Some boys and young men contributed tothe family’s welfare during that period, as confirmed by Srigley’sinterviews.


Roy,Gabrielle. “TheTin Flute.”Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, (1947): 118-360. Print.

Srigley,Katrina. “BreadwinningDaughters: Young Working Women in a Depression-Era City, 1929-1939.&quotKindle Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, (2010):404-1449. print.