Men and women moved in separate, though very close, worlds in 19th-century society. The world for men involved employment, politics and public life, the professions and services, and activities outside the home. The woman's sphere was restricted to the home, the garden and the family (Ward, 64).
Women were barred from practically all professions except teaching (and then only if they were unmarried). They had no vote, few legal rights and virtually no public role. They were expected to wield their influence behind the scenes.
That, at least, was the theory. In practice, the worlds of a husband and wife inevitably overlapped, especially on the frontier, where women and children worked alongside men in the difficult, urgent task of clearing land to plant crops and build shelter.
Even in more settled times, husbands and wives inevitably were concerned with each other's responsibilities. Being a member of the Province of Canada's House of Assembly, Marcus Child was away from home for months at a time. His letters to his wife, Lydia, in the years 1841 - 1845 discussed Canadian politics in detail -- and Lydia kept him informed of public opinion at home.
Moreover, in his absence, Lydia had to take on many "masculine" responsibilities, dealing with the hired hand and exercising authority over the farm and store. Marcus gave advice and instruction, but he also told her to use her judgment. She, in turn, consulted him about domestic decisions (Noël, 109 - 115).
Women left on their own -- widows, deserted wives, or wives of disabled or incompetent men -- did whatever was needed to survive, and that often meant taking on the man's work as well as their own.
Men left on their own with children were more apt to hire a housekeeper or find a new wife to take over those responsibilities -- or both. For example, Dunham Emery from Burlington, Ontario, a widower with a housekeeper, courted the schoolteacher Jane Van Norman (Noël, 45 - 48).
But no matter how the work was divided, men's and women's occupations were complementary and seen as equally important.
Marriage, therefore, created a working partnership, an economic whole. The man farmed, or worked for wages or at a profession. The woman literally kept the home fires burning. At a time when all food and clothing were homemade, this was no small task.
For farm wives like Susanna Moodie -- who wrote several articles and books about pioneer life in Upper Canada -- work started early in the morning. "There were stoves to stoke, chickens to feed, eggs to collect, babies to feed and dress, porridge to make. ... Then there was all the baking to be done -- the bread, pies and cakes required to feed not just growing families but also the hired help in the fields"(Gray, 106).
Kitchen gardens had to be tended and preserves put up (Noël, 90 - 91). Laundry, done once a week, was a considerable chore. Most clothing was still made at home, although ready-made fabrics became more commonplace as the century wore on. However, spinning and weaving of wool and linen fabrics continued in many households throughout the century (Noël, 83). Hand-spinning was still common in Quebec well into the 20th century (Beth Abbot, Kingston Handweavers and Spinners Guild/St. Lawrence College, pers. comm.).
Love was all very well and good, but was a prospective husband hard-working and reliable? Did a potential wife know how to run a household and cook? These were important issues.
Mary Westcott Papineau, once established in Montréal, had principally to supervise the work, not to do it herself. Married to an urban professional, she had hired help: a cook, a coachman, a manservant, a maid and (after her daughter was born) a nursemaid. Good help was hard to keep; maids married, menservants found better jobs and the possibility of owning land drew many to the frontiers (Noël, 85 - 88). Mary still did much of her own cooking and baking, however (Noël, 91).
Mary Eleanor Westcott Papineau fonds, 1810 - 1889. Textual record. Library and Archives Canada. Archival reference no.: R4386-0-7-E; (MG24-K58).
Noël, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780 - 1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.