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The Prairie Wide Web: Virtual communities of pioneer women

Before the World Wide Web, women living on isolated homesteads belonged to virtual communities with much in common with today’s social media. These communities involved more than one physical location. They offered an exchange of ideas, opinions and information, and provided networking, education and problem-solving opportunities.

Instead of Facebook or Twitter, they had names such as “Circle of Good Company” and “Home Loving Hearts.” Found in agricultural publications and newspapers, they were known collectively as the “women’s pages.”

Conversations flowed in letters between editor and subscriber, but it was expected and understood that this correspondence was also read and responded to by a community of women, plus a few men. Unlike today, published letters to the editor didn’t require actual names and were the only form of regular contact with the outside world for many early homesteaders. A letter in a 1900 Family Herald and Weekly Star’s “Good Company” pages asked readers to “Imagine being 60 miles from a post office for over a year!”

Prior to the 1880s, newspapers enjoyed financial support from political party contributions. Reporting was anything but balanced and impartial. The advent of the “new journalism” and its trend toward objectivity meant revenue sources went from partisan to business based. Papers needed increased readership to attract advertising dollars. This resulted in the creation of a section aimed specifically at women, the chief purchasers of items for the home.

Noms de plume

Previously, few women had written for newspapers, but those who did wrote from home under male, female or ambiguous (initials only) pseudonyms to protect their identity. That respectable women would want a career in journalism went against public opinion.

Items on these pages were not hard news, so men refused to write them. Opportunities opened up for females as reporters and editors, and for a feminine world view. Male reporters considered these columns mere fluff, but in reality they were rich in diversity of topics and sometimes subversive.

Activism requires a public means of communication. Through the printed page, feminists lobbied for change. Recipes and domestic advice ran side by side with articles on Canadian homestead law, the Dower Act and suffrage.

“Butter and Eggs,” District of Assiniboia, wrote in 1905 to the Prim Rose at Home editor: “Will you, through your helpful columns, suggest the best means of acquiring land by a single woman… where is the benefit of opening up the agricultural colleges if a woman must, after gaining theoretical knowledge of the subject — take up some other calling in order to provide herself with means to purchase land? Is it not a rather useless concession? Could you not get up a petition for some small holdings for women…?”

In the women’s pages of The Grain Growers Guide in 1910, “A Manitoba Woman Pioneer” wrote, “It’s a pity to see women shutting their eyes to the misery of their sisters, who are at the mercy of some mean men, who can will away everything and leave wife and children homeless and penniless; or of a drunkard who can, when in his cups, sell house and all and leave them in the same bad state.”

Regarding a Dundurn farmer’s comments on Dower law, “Just a Woman” countered: “To say he has a nerve is putting it mildly… He says the subject is worn threadbare. If it is distasteful to him there are 22 other pages in The Guide he might read.”

An editorial in the same publication responded to letter writer Mrs. Ted: “Who assigned ‘church work and temperance work to women as their only righteous fields for her away-from-home endeavours?’ Will a day spent away from home in church work be shorter than one spent away in politics?”

Charity by mail

Women networked within these communities to provide what are now government-mandated services. Several letters mentioned looking for permanent or temporary homes for children and babies. In an early form of recycling, used clothing, reading material and sewing patterns were sent directly to a recipient once an address was secured or to the paper and forwarded to a subscriber.

In 1900, “E.M.T. of the Northwest Territories” (then including Alberta, Saskatchewan and a good part of Manitoba) wrote the “Hostess” of Circle of Good Company: “Will you kindly send me two or three addresses of people living in either Manitoba, Assiniboia, or Alberta, to whom we could send partly worn clothing or stockings. We have a quantity of such articles which could be cut down and made over for children. If the people whose addresses you send are too poor to pay carriage, please let me know, also the number of persons in the families.”

Women who would never meet physically, yet held similar values, shared information ranging from domestic to feminist issues.

The women’s pages might not have been digital, but they provided virtual communities which continuously grew as settlers pushed farther west.

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