Progress for women's rights looks vast considering it wasn't so long ago, (the late 19th century) that women's "mental inferiority" and "primary role" as child-bearers barred them from entering the legal profession.

Constance Backhouse's Petticoats and Prejudice provides the reader with personal cases of significance in areas such as marriage, divorce, rape, abortion, child custody, prostitution and protective labor legislation.

Nineteeth-century common law stated that women's property was transferred to their husbands upon marriage. Treating women as property themselves was a logical extension of the law, leaving the door open to wife-battering. Men's assumption of the ownership of women was a cause of inequitable marital relations. Nineteenth- century women thus began a campaign for more just matrimonial relations through reform of the property law.

A petition was sent to the legislature of Upper Canada in 1857 which stated, among other things, that the transfer of women's wages to their husbands led to the squandering of hard-earned dollars in a tavern.

« Previous page

Quebec women, while not bound by common law, were also denied legal rights upon marriage. Though her property became property of the couple, only the husband could be the administrator of property, rendering women's ownership ineffectual.

Protective labor laws that followed show even the proponents of the legislation did not have women's interests at heart. Legislation to protect female factory workers and shopgirls was introduced not as a means of bettering a woman's health as an end in itself, but as a means to ensuring she would produce healthy babies. The woman's own health did not count.

Backhouse spends too much time discussing the details of individual cases of women, making the text unnecessarily long. But it's a well-researched and documented book that took her more than a decade to produce.

- LOUISE GAGNON. The Gazette. Montreal, Que.: Sep 7, 1991

Back to overview