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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Representing Vancouver’s working girls, 1890-1930 McMaster, Lindsey


My dissertation addresses representations of the young women of Vancouver's working class, who, in the first part of the twentieth century, became touchstones for judgements on city life, work, and morality. Young, single, wage-earning women were something new and troubling to the middleclass administrators and social critics of the time. While the city's numerous single working men, with their overcrowded dwellings and tendencies to unionize, were considered somewhat disorderly, the necessity of their presence was never questioned. "Working girls,"on the other hand, seemed to embody all that was unnerving and unnatural about modern times: the disintegration of the family, the independence of women, and the promiscuity of city life. These kinds of anxieties were not unique to Vancouver: the issue of wage-earning women was deemed a "social problem" in various western cities. But Vancouver's singular geopolitical situation meant that these anxieties were exacerbated and amplified in distinct and curious ways. In 1922, for instance, a law was passed "for the protection of women and girls" which prohibited white women from working alongside Asian men. What combination of racism, paternalism, and moral panic gave rise to such legislation? And how did the women react to being controlled and judged by such assumptions? Rather than viewing the problems of wage-earning women as coextensive with those of working men - problems of wages, working conditions, and workers' rights - social administrators and reformers focussed largely on the moral implications of women's entrance into the workplace, particularly insofar as it represented a break from traditional Victorian ideals of domestic femininity. Denied the recognition afforded male workers as members of the labour force and economic agents, working women suffered various disadvantages in the workplace, their wages barely enough to survive on, and their rights as workers ignored by employers and union leaders alike. The tendency in historical accounts of Canada to overlook or underestimate the importance of women's work is undoubtedly in part due to the ideological disinclination to see or to represent women as workers rather than as wives and mothers. This is why my analysis focusses on the politics of gender and representation, for it is through representational conventions that women were pressured to embody a traditional domestic role, and likewise it is through a representational agenda that women were denied recognition as valuable workers.

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