History book offers glimpses of Canada's prairie women homesteaders; A Harvest Yet to Reap: A history of Prairie Women, compiled by Linda Rasmussen. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press. $12.50.
A photograph at the beginning of "A Harvest Yet to Reap" shows three women, two men, and three children standing behind a sign that says, "We're sailing west, we're sailing west, to prairie lands sunkissed and blest -- the crofter's trail to happiness." They were bound for Canada's homestead lands in the western prairies (which were settled later than the West and Midwest in the United States). The photograph illustrates what conventional histories do not -- both women and men settled Canada's prairies. Elected leaders of the time were men, and official chronicles concentrated on men.
The history of Canada's prairie women is fragmentary and anecdotal, but the women who compiled "A Harvest Yet to Reap" point out its importance: "We began to realize how powerful our image of the past had been in limiting our sense of our own possibilities." The prairie women before them, though, had no time to worry about what was and was not possible -- they were too busy surviving.
The inhospitable land and primitive living conditions were discouraging; one woman sat down and cried when she first saw the sod hut that was to be her home. But Canadian farm women worked to make real homes out on the prairie. One woman's husband called their home a shack: "This I resented, and although the entire building was no longer than the dining room of my old Ontario home it was to be my home and I called it a house. My heart almost stopped still, however, when i stepped inside. However was I going to make that one 14 by 16 room into a kitchen, bedroom, and sitting room. I did it, though, and have had as many as eight visitors at one time."
Life in the sod huts and turf houses, with their leaking roofs and dirt walls and floors, was to hectic in the early years of settling the Canadian prairies for women to worry much about the legal system that gave them no legal stake in the homes they helped build and maintain or the families they raised. Canadian women could not homestead on their own, they had no voice in their husband's disposition of property, and their children were legally the property of their husbands.
When life on the prairies became easier, prairie women became actively involved in working for women's rights. By 1919 all Canadian women had the right to vote, and, as also happened in America, winning the vote marked the end of an active Canadian women's righ ts movement for many years.