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A Silent Revolution? Gender and Wealth in English Canada, 1860-1930

By Peter Baskerville

October 29, 2013

Review By Judith Fingard

A Silent Revolution? is a fascinating study of female capitalists in Victoria and Hamilton at the turn of the twentieth century.  Peter Baskerville employs both quantitative and qualitative methods to establish that women were willing and active participants in building the financial infrastructure of the liberal bourgeois state in modern Canada. The prevailing ideology of separate spheres had virtually no impact on the behaviour of women in the marketplace. Female testators, investors, borrowers, lenders, property owners, and entrepreneurs held their own with their male counterparts, and the system they produced together was largely non-gendered. The context for the analysis is urban English Canada, the approach comparative – female/male, Hamilton/Victoria, then and now – and it is based on every conceivable variable. The sources constitute an impressive range of probate and assessment records, shareholder lists, census returns, bills of sale registration, and, for Chapter 7 (on businesswomen) and Chapter 8 (on family enterprise), the 5 percent 1901 census household sample of the Canadian Families Project.

Baskerville convincingly demonstrates that the various provincial married women’s property acts of late Victorian Canada became more broadly women’s property laws by encouraging new patterns of inheritance from parents to daughters and husbands to wives. The loosening of the controls on women’s property rights facilitated the expansion of women’s role in financial affairs whether they were married, widowed, or single. In terms of total probated wealth, women in both cities were equal to men below the top quintile. Women were therefore not among the wealthiest Canadians, nor were they greatly attracted to risky business ventures, possibly a prerequisite for attaining the most wealth. Their more moderate and conservative patterns of wealth management, including a preference for shares in banks and insurance companies and land ownership, may have been encouraged by a mother-to-daughter practice of financial knowledge-sharing  that was far less structured than was that of father-to-son. Women’s agency in material matters nonetheless increased over the period covered by this book. In wills and probate, for example, women became more active as executors. They were as likely as their husbands to place controls in their wills on their widowed spouse, but they were more likely to overlook their spouse entirely as a beneficiary. For daughters, the more generous inheritances encouraged by the new laws governing women’s property provided the very opportunity for them to enter the money market. 

Women’s gains in real property after the enactment of women’s property legislation were especially impressive: in Victoria, women moved from owning one in every $29 of landed wealth in 1871 to one in every $5 in 1899; in Hamilton, the figures were one in every $22 and one in every $7. In fact “more Victoria women were landowners and general investors than was the case in Hamilton” (114). A considerable portion of the analysis focuses on relationships between wives and husbands concerning property, a central issue then and for many decades to follow. Baskerville traces the likely impact of such features as the lack of dower law in British Columbia, the traditional anti-coercion safeguard of the privy, or separate, examination of the wife, and differential sex ratios in these two cities. In the mortgage market, age turned out to be an important factor, with women loaning money to a younger set than did men. Women, especially self-employed women, were also active as lenders and borrowers in the chattel loan market, which is described “as a kind of pawnshop, only the goods remained in possession of the borrower” (168). A broader range of class was involved here than in the realty market. When the author turns to the role of women in business, he encounters the deficiencies of the 1901 census, particularly with regard to boardinghouse keepers, and spends considerable time explaining this problem instead of resorting to city directories as a possible solution. As an enterprise, self-employment for women was far more prevalent early in the twentieth century than it would become later. Indeed, in 1901, women were 5.3 times more likely to be self-employed than were men. Even though most were married and undoubtedly middle class, these women were demonstrably not “constrained by separate spheres ideology” (219). Moreover, the family context of women’s self-employment meant that “female-run family businesses extended the world of contracts and competition into the home” (235).

While some readers may find the degree of speculation and repetition problematic, the number of graphs and tables tedious, and the statistical methods as obfuscating as they are revealing, Baskerville redeems himself by cogently situating his analysis within the international literature on the subject — legal, feminist, business, and theoretical. A discussion of one additional topic might have helped to dispel the uncomfortable notion that women were merely individualistic, closet capitalists. We are not told the extent to which women used their wealth to create social capital, particularly through bequests. Given women’s active participation in the institutions of their community – churches and missions, schools and colleges, the arts, hospitals and homes, charities and self-help ventures, it is not only their participation in women’s organizations and auxiliaries that measures their philanthropic influence (see Appendix 4) but also their financial clout when it came to longer-term support, both annually and through their wills. As penny capitalists, sharing the features of their property with the middling stratum of male capitalists, women had only two opportunities to exert power through their wealth. One involved their position in the family, which must have varied enormously woman to woman across society, from some calling the shots to others withering in the corner (even for the more assertive it was indeed a well-hidden, or “silent,” power). The other involved women’s position in their community, where the rapid establishment and expansion of all the agencies and institutions that would today be incorporated as registered charities must have benefited considerably not only from their activism but also from their financial support. Placing first-wave feminists across Canada within the framework of female capitalism that Baskerville has so compellingly uncovered would be an intriguing focus for a follow-up study.

BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.