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Academic Writing: Leisure and the Working Girl in Early 20th Century Toronto


Urban industrialization created entirely new job markets for women seeking to enter the formal economy. First came factory-based manufacturing positions and feminized service roles like those of the “hello girls” working as operators for Bell Telephone. Professional designations like doctor and lawyer were much less commonplace than teacher, social worker, and nurse, but the vast majority of women workers sold their labour in Toronto’s burgeoning secondary manufacturing sector in textiles, paper goods, and consumables.In many cases, these positions did not afford women enough wages to raise them out of the working-class income bracket. In fact, the wages they earned often could not spare women from living in poverty and placed them at risk of exploitation by their employers. Working late into the evening to earn enough wages for rent or food was not uncommon, especially for seamstresses and women in other expendable manufacturing roles. Overall, women’s wages were substantially lower than men’s and they faced wide pay gaps in virtually all paid positions. It was commonly understood by employers that women’s work was a temporary venture until marriage, so their poor treatment could be justified because of their impending dependence upon their future husbands for financial support; they would not require the income soon enough. Employers desired a female workforce because their reduced wage payouts, and with the mechanization of manufacturing and office work, could rationalize hiring women to do the unskilled work at lower cost. Seasonal unemployment was also a serious concern in the winter lull following the holiday season and in the summer. In some instances where women could make enough wages working extended hours during the busy seasons, they could afford to work part-time hours or not at all during slower periods. For others, they were forced to take up additional work, bring in domestic work to their homes, or resort to activities like prostitution to survive. Risk of destitution from unemployment or illness lurked around the corner for many working women. Economic precarity was a defining feature of many working girls’ lives in Toronto.

As the city expanded in area and population in the final decades of the nineteenth century, women were seeking out types of work that appeared contrary to what social norms dictated with factory, clerical, and professional jobs together beginning to outpace domestic service employment, in part due to the lesser degree of supervision during the work day. With greater independence and less supervision, women’s economic lives began to shift away from the home and their participation in public life increased. One of the most obvious signifiers of the changing social and economic positions of women was their undeniable presence in the public eye. Thousands boarded streetcars, streamed in and out of Eaton’s or Christie’s at shift change, and strode up Yonge Street each day with a wholly different set of social drivers than their rural sisters. Their independence, however meagre in some cases, was reinforced by work that loosened their ties to the domestic sphere. Living in an industrial city meant countless options for employment outside the home and beyond the near constant supervision that accompanied live-in domestic work. Seeking alternatives to domestic work ensured that women’s time off work was their own. Where working girls had the opportunity to engage in recreation, it appears they did so in droves. They took part in “dance fever,” traveled to Toronto Island, and attended all manner of theatrical productions at minimal financial cost. Changing patterns of work and free time encouraged greater participation in leisure activities, and further pushed working women into the public eye and placed them in range of moral reformers seeking to address their countercultural behaviour.