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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Gender, class and community: the history of Sne-nay-muxw women’s employment Littlefield, Loraine


This thesis documents the employment history of Sne-nay-muxw women. The Sne nay-muxw, a Coast Salish peoples, live on the southeast coast ofVancouver Island close to the city ofNanaimo. Nanaimo was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1852 as coal mining town. Coal dominated the economy until the early 20th century when forestry related production became important. Today a service economy has eclipsed both the primary and secondary industries. Within these economies a distinct gender, race and class segregation structured Sne-nay-muxw women’s employment opportunities. This study examines the nature of this segregation, the Sne-nay-muxw domestic economy and the gender ideology that promoted both women’s inclusion and exclusion in. wage labour. A central question posed in this thesis is why Sne-nay-muxw women today perceive their traditional roles to be within the home despite their historical participation in the labour force. Feminist anthropology provides the theoretical and methodological approach used for this study. It is accepted that women’s experiences in the labour force are different not only from men but also from other women based upon relational inequalities ofrace and class. Historical data was collected from a variety of sources; published and unpublished government reports, missionary accounts, letters and journals. Nineteen women and eight men were interviewed in the community for both historic and contemporary accounts of employment experiences. History reveals that during the mining economy Sne-nay-muxw women were excluded from working in the mines and limited to employment as domestic servants. The introduction of Chinese labour, decreasing coal demands and increased technology forced many women to migrate with their families to the canneries on the Fraser river and the hop fields in Washington state. In the forestry related production economy, Sne-nay-muxw women’s opportunities were limited despite the expansion of employment for women in the service sector. State policies and inferior education were significant factors in this exclusion. At this time Sne-nay-muxw women continued to migrate with their families to the fish camps on Rivers Inlet and the berry fields in Washington state. In the last two decades the service economy has dominated in Nanaimo. Sne-nay-muxw women have found increasing job opportunities on and off reserve in administration, management and professional service delivery programs. While this employment is part of the wider trend for women in the service economy, Sne-nay-muxw women’s opportunities remain segregated by gender, race and class. Women’s participation in the labour force is shown to be linked to the organization of their domestic economy. Before 1920 this economy incorporated both subsistence production and farming with seasonal wage labour. After this time the Sne-nay-muxw became increasingly dependent upon wage labour. However, extended family and kinship networks have remained important for support and cooperation. This form ofhousehold organization did not constrain women’s participation in the labour force. Today extended families remain the central organizing principle in Sne-nay-muxw lives. Sne-nay-muxw women’s identity and opportunities for education and employment remain linked to their membership in these families. Shifts in women’s participation in the labour force is shown to be accompanied by acceptance of a domestic ideology. During the mining economy when women actively sought wage labour, they acquired domestic skills needed for wage labour but did not accept an ideology that promoted their dependency upon men. Historical evidence indicates that they retained a significant degree of autonomy in their lives. With men’s increased security of employment in the forestry economy, the idealized role ofwomen as housewives was promoted. Families that were able to realize women’s exclusion from the labour force gained status and prestige in the community. Finally, in the service economy, the Sne-nay-muxw gender ideology includes women’s participation in the labour force to occupations linked to their domestic and nurturing roles.

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