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COMMENTARY: ‘The Perfect Woman’ and indentured servitude

['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']
['Did You Know That with Alan Walter']

Did You Know with Alan Walter

There was a lot of interest in my recent article about a 1901 book that came my way, entitled “The Perfect Woman” written by American, Mary R. Melendy, M.D., a noted authority at the time on the topic of “perfect womanhood for maidens, wives and mothers.”

The book proclaimed itself as a tutorial on “all the mysterious and complex matters pertaining to women and is a complete medical guide for women.” It also contained a collection of photos and illustrations to represent perfect womanhood and family life at the time, with titles such as - the model wife – a happy mother - a perfect figure – symmetry of face – brunette: a type of beauty.

It also had much to say on marital relations advising the woman that - “If it be the man’s part to lay the foundations and erect the building, it is the woman’s to beautify and enshrine the kindly arts within them.” And “when the time comes for enlargement of your affection, show him you are equal to it.”

For a full picture of how a woman’s role in society was severely limited back then, recognise that women did not get to vote in all provinces across Canada until almost forty years after this book’s publication.

Much to my surprise I was contacted a few days ago by a lady living in Cumberland county who not only possessed another copy of this rare book but could trace it back to its original owner, a lady named Mary, the grandmother of her late husband. Mary had emigrated from England to Canada at eighteen years of age in 1902 and likely brought a copy of the book with her.

Mary came to Canada to work as housekeeper and servant to a Hamilton, Ontario family who would employ her under a commonly used “indentured servitude” legally-enforced arrangement for a specified period of time, in exchange for the family covering the cost of her passage to Canada.

Mary our own ‘perfect woman’
Mary our own ‘perfect woman’

In Mary’s case the term of employment was a lengthy seven years under various restrictions including not marrying without the permission of her employer. In some cases, to ensure that the indenture contract was satisfied in the allotted amount of time, the terms of the indenture could legally be lengthened for female servants if they became pregnant.

It appears that two years after Mary completed her seven years of employment with the Hamilton family, she married a gentleman called Albert, and they were soon blessed with an only child, also by the name of Albert.

In most countries, systems of indentured labor have thankfully been outlawed, and were banned as a form of slavery by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

The declaration itself stated in Article 4 that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". You have to wonder why it took so long to prohibit the inhuman practice of servitude.

Included in this article is a photo of Mary provided by the Cumberland county lady, and I use it with her full support and permission. Mary truly was one of thousands of courageous “perfect women” by our definition, who were subject to the abuse of servitude while striving to eventually live a rewarding life.

To finish on a very different note, I happened to notice in Mary’s copy of the Perfect Woman book a striking photograph of two teenage girls of that time. Each were in their Victorian dresses and elaborate hairdos and were admiring themselves in small hand mirrors held at arms length.

Their poses reminded me so much of what we see nowadays with our girls checking their appearance with their smartphones, also held at arms length. So much so that I was left with a surreal feeling that the two Victorian-age girls, full of youthful spirits, but sadly long since deceased, would have been right at home hanging out with our own two teenage daughters who have their lives ahead of them. Now that would be something to experience.....

Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at alanwalter@eastlink.ca.

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