“The Excitement of Being a Woman”: The Role of Patriotism and Public Perception in the Once-In-A-While Club
by Emily Beeston
Download PDF version
On November 29, 1918, The Sackville Post published an article called ‘The Excitement of Being a Woman: A Writer Tells Some of the Things the Average Woman Finds Really Exciting Before and After Marriage’, by Dorthey Dix. She wrote, “Being a woman isn’t as dull a career as [men] seem to think. Of course it isn’t as exciting as being a man. Being a woman is being a kind of understudy in the life where one never gets on in the big happenings except as a sort of Ladies Auxiliary; never the less it has its diversions and its moments of adventure. (1) The article appears to have been written with tongue firmly in cheek, although that point is irrelevant. Whether Dix was mocking public opinion or simply espousing the current circumstances for women, there certainly were conditions in place that may have prompted her to write such a piece. Women in Canada were restricted in their choices in life. However, some suffered these conditions less than others. During the First World War, the Once-In-A-While Club of Sackville, New Brunswick allowed women the opportunity to engage in their own kind of patriotism that kept them actively involved in exciting political action. This paper examines the ways in which this group made unique contributions to the war effort while simultaneously challenging the prevailing ideas regarding women’s interest and involvement in political matters.
Women, Education, and Politics in 20th Century Canada
Dix’s suggestion that women were considered second-class citizens was in large part based on fact. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of Canadian women still held the expectation that it was their destiny to become wives and mothers. In many cases they were educated for just such a destiny; the latter years of the 19th century saw a push toward “practical” education for both men and women. (2) Historians of Canadian women attribute a declining birthrate at the turn of the 20th century, to an increase in the availability of education, allowing more women to become financially independent. As well, this period has revealed a significant lack of females (especially those of British origin) properly trained for domestic careers. As a result, the Domestic Science movement was born. (3) While men were educated in manual technologies, girls’ schools taught cooking, nutrition, and needlework classes. Although the Three R’s, as well as art, music, and literature were considered suitable topics for women’s education, greater emphasis was placed on the importance of educating women to be proper domestic creatures. Shortly thereafter, advanced domestic science training became available in universities, including Mount Allison University in Sackville New Brunswick where it was first “introduced as a field of study in 1904.” (4)
Meanwhile, limited attempts were made to allow women’s participation in the public sphere, especially in the realm of politics. The Wartime Elections Act of 1917 allowed female citizens to vote if they were over the age 21 and a wife, widow, mother, sister, or daughter of someone serving overseas. However, this was intended to be limited legislation that would only be applicable for the duration of the war, and was widely acknowledged to be a political maneuver by Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government to endorse their mandate for conscription. (5) It was not until 1920 that the women of Canada obtained some measure of universal suffrage at either federal or provincial levels. (6) Still, many men in the public sphere were concerned that women’s interests would corrupt their politics, and stood by their belief that it was not a woman’s place to be concerned with political affairs. Throughout the country, there was a tremendous backlash against the work of suffrage activists such as Nellie McClung. In Toronto, journalist Goldwin Smith published an essay charging women’s enfranchisement with the disruption of the home front, and division of marriages. In Quebec, Henri Bourassa, founder of the influential Quebec newspaper Le Devoir, condemned anything that encouraged women’s participation in the public sphere. (7) Perhaps even more renowned was Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin’s statement in early 1914, when he so infamously told the notorious McClung that “nice women” don’t want the vote. (8) Prohibitive legislation and educational policies often stood in the way of women receiving public or popular encouragement to involve themselves with politics, but a hostile political climate soon necessitated that women step beyond traditional gender expectations. When war broke out in 1914, Canadians marveled as the first rounds of convoys left for Europe carrying thousands of men. Prewar militia organizations and patriotic civilians recruited close to half a million men by early 1916, and men and women around the country collected donations for soldiers’ families and to create facilities for sick and wounded veterans. (9) Women across the country found useful ways to “do their bit” for the war effort, and mobilized themselves in a way that had never been seen before. Women’s organizations distributed white feathers to healthy young men as symbols of cowardice, and women wore badges proclaiming “Knit or Fight”. Women preserved food, knitted socks, and salvaged clothing - all of which were considered patriotic acts- and membership in national women’s organizations skyrocketed. For example, between 1915 and 1917, The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) alone increased its membership by 10,000. One hundred new chapters formed with the primary purpose of mobilizing women and children to support the war and to educate them about British history. (10)
In the wake of the war, thousands of women entered the paid labor force to fill jobs vacated by enlisted men. Effectively and consciously, these women challenged the idea that the domestic sphere alone was theirs for domination, although most lost this opportunity when the men returned home from war and returned to their jobs. Meanwhile, others continued to offer support through more traditional forms of female expression: such as nursing wounded soldiers, and using their influence as mothers to encourage their sons to fight for their country. However, in Sackville, New Brunswick, a small women’s group called the Once-In-A-While Club facilitated a unique expression of patriotism that proved an unintentional challenge to prevailing concepts of women’s education and political interest. Although an examination of the Minute books from the 1917-1918 and 1918-1919 seasons show that the Club members were concerned with much of what had traditionally been thought of as a “woman’s place”, their work seems to have been in direct violation of much of the popular opinion that existed regarding gender roles.
The Once-In-A-While Club
The Once-In-A-While Club was established by a group of upper class Sackville women in 1913. Every two weeks, the Club would gather at the home of a member and present papers on academic topics to one another. Each meeting had a specific focus, and the whole season carried with it a general topic for study. The topic of the 1917-1918 season was “Russia and France”, and included evenings entitled “Famous Women of France” and “Devastated France.” The presentations for this season also included papers entitled: “Ruined Cathedrals”, “Alsace – Lorraine”, and “Battle Line from North Sea to Verdun. (11) The topic of the following season (1918-1919) was “Great Britain Under the Last Three Sovereigns”, and saw evenings entitled, “Reign of King Edward”, “Closing Years of the Reign of Queen Victoria” and “Mid Victorian Period”, among others. (12)
The women of the Once-In-A-While Club carried names that are familiar to anyone who has taken a walk around the Mount Allison campus. Mrs. A.W. Bennett, Mrs. H.E. Bigelow, Mrs. S.W. Hunton were all members during these two seasons, as was Mrs. Josiah Wood, whose husband was among the first graduates of the Academy at Mount Allison and later went on to be Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick. (13) It is clear that these women were of high society, and worked actively to keep their Club to high social and intellectual standards. At the end of the 1917-1918 season they adopted a constitution outlining Club rules and procedures, as well as the election process for the Executive, and the appointment of new members. It was decided that membership was not to exceed twenty-two, and that any member missing four meetings would be asked to resign membership so she could be replaced. The Constitution states that in the event of a vacancy members should put forth names to the executive of women interested in becoming a part of the Club. The executive would then select the person whom they felt would be the most “valuable” member. (14) What constituted a valuable member is somewhat of a mystery, as the Minutes do not suggest that there existed any grounds for rejection. That said, the Club remained terribly exclusive. Visitors to Club meetings were carefully selected although many were anxious to be part of the organization. During a discussion of a decline in attendance among members, Club Secretary Mrs. A.H. McCready recorded the following observation in the Minute Book: “If the hostess was notified of the intended absence, a larger number of visitors might be invited, as a number of ladies have signified their wish to become regular members of the Club.” (15)
The Once-In-A-While Club in the Public Eye
The popularity of the group indicates that the women of the Once-In-A-While Club were not only public figures in their own right, but also gained popularity through the considerable favorable media attention the Club received. The Sackville Post kept the community updated on the club’s activities in articles about Club meetings, all of which reflected clear admiration and respect for the work members were performing. Articles were printed about nearly every meeting and generally carried the title “Interesting Evening Held”, or “Literary Club Hears Splendid Papers”, and often reported on the high quality of the presentations. In an article following an evening of presentations about Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici in early 1919, the Post read: “The papers read were not only very instructive, but very carefully prepared, and where occasion offered, the past and present state of political upheaval were contrasted, and the thought was expressed that today as then, the interests of civilization demand that the reigns of government be held tightly whatever the name of the political party in power. (16)
Mrs. McCready included a copy of each published article among the Minutes, indicating a kind of approval and pride in the recognition the Club was receiving. More important, however, is the fact that the public was reading these articles, and in many cases looked to the Club as a sort of study guide; not only in regard to the war, but in academic matters in general. In her aforementioned report at the close of the 1918-1919 season, Mrs. McCready recalled one of her first encounters with a member of the community who expressed interest in what the Club was studying: “On one occasion a Sackville woman said to me, ‘I was very much interested in your Bronte program, but you didn’t say anything about Patrick. I replied, ‘oh yes, we did say quite a lot about him, but of course we could not publish everything.’ This conversation took place months after our Bronte program. I have sometimes thought that ‘worth while club’ might be a more appropriate name.” (17) Clearly the admiration their work received was something these women took pride in, and their high public profile remained something of which they were very conscious.
The Theme of Nationalism and Politics in Club Presentations
Given the responsibility these women felt toward the Sackville community, and the ways in which members of the community looked to their program for intellectual pursuits, it is also important to recognize the highly nationalistic and political nature of the papers presented. Club members were not presenting papers on how to get their whites whiter or make pork chops that their husbands would love; in the thick of World War One and in its immediate aftermath they were examining why the war broke out and the devastation it caused.
The theme of the 1918-1919 season speaks directly to the concern the Club had for its Mother country, Britain. The War was just ending as the Club planned to explore the most recent British monarchs as well as British involvement in the Great War. In an article reporting on an evening entitled “The Reign of King George and the Empire’s Role in the Great War”, the Post stated that the Club explored some of the reasons behind the development of the conflict:
"Mrs. Freeman-Lake, who arranged the program of the evening outlined the events which set the stage for the world conflict, even before the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand and his morganatic wife at Sarajevo in June 1914...the development of the British army was traced, from the early days of the professional force at Mons to the days of the Armistice, when the great unparalleled enthusiasm of Britain for its King and Queen proves how well they deserved the homage of the far flung Empire. The Navy and the part played by the outlying Dominions were given due recognition in this extensive and interesting resume." (18)
This presentation’s heavy focus on foreign affairs reflected a deep respect and loyalty for the British Empire. However, such interest in the war was not limited to Great Britain; before the war ended, papers were also being delivered about the devastation France had suffered during the war, as well as the controversial territory of Alsace – Lorraine
The Intentional Concern and Unintentional Challenge Offered by the Club
The topics the Club chose to explore seemed to have been be presenting an open, if unconscious, challenge to the concept of the proper place for women. Furthermore, there are hints throughout the Minutes that the women of the Club were aware that their work was perhaps not so commonplace, and that they may have been stepping beyond expectations. In her 1919 report, Mrs. McCready spoke to the concern some women had about whether the Club would be able to survive: “There were some among us who thought such a Club could not live in Sackville. But we are six years old, and to-day’s meeting marks the 64th held under to auspices of the Club, including Executive meetings. We have lived and flourished, and developed strength with our growth. Never at any time have we been conscious of a struggle for existence, as is sometimes the experience for such organizations. (19) Perhaps it is not incidental that the Club devoted an entire evening to studying famous and prominent women in French history, and took such pride in holding the Club to such a high standard.
At the same time, close examination of the Club’s Minute Books suggests that one must be cautious when examining just how conscious this challenge to accepted versions of femininity really was. In many cases, the women of the Once-In-A While Club seemed to adhere to and embody the expectation that, as women, they were to be concerned solely with the private sphere. The Minute Books of the 1918-1919 season in particular suggest that traditional matters were of concern. Several conversations were had about the proper food to be served at meetings. On November 27, 1918 for example, host Mrs. McCready was congratulated on serving the perfect refreshments- tiny bran muffins, war cake and coffee. (20) It also cannot be ignored that the study and presentation of academic topics such as the histories of Great Britain and France bear a striking resemblance to teaching, one of the few professions upon which women had made their mark. However, the topics that these women chose to explore were of exceptional political interest. Although at the time women were gaining ground on men in the educational field, it was not until six years after the founding the Club, that women were given the right to vote in New Brunswick. (21) Papers such as “The Reign of King George and the Empire’s Role In the Great War” and “Battle Line From North Sea to Verdun,” contradict any claim that ‘women couldn’t possibly be interested in current affairs’. Indeed, members of the Once-In-A-While-Club were anxious to engage themselves in political issues, and encourage others to do the same.
One must also consider that wartime called for modesty and respect on the Canadian home front; perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for their concern with refreshments. It seems that Club members regarded their work as a model for public contribution and therefore, it was of utmost importance that they appear respectful on the home front, given the conditions of the war front. Mrs. McCready addressed this matter directly in a conversation she had with a local religious official about the existence of the Club during wartime. In her Annual Report at the end of the 1918-1919 season she wrote: “In the autumn of 1914, when the war clouds had broken, some of us had doubts about taking any time from our war work to prepare papers for the Club. One day I was talking to Dr. Bond, then resident in Sackville Methodist Parsonage, and asked him what he thought about it. After a moments silence, he said, ‘yes, that’s all right, its spiritual.’” (22) This conversation speaks to a concern for war time modesty and respect, and more importantly, to the fact that the members of the Once-In-A-While Club felt confident that their work as part of the organization was an appropriate contribution during troubled times.
What was unique about the Once-In-A While Club was that in the end, its members seemed not think of themselves as issuing an open challenge to the concept of women’s education and political interest, but rather viewed their work as patriotic action. What resulted was a Club that furnished a small group of highly intellectual competent Sackville women the opportunity to converse on political affairs when the world was in disarray, and simultaneously push the boundaries of what was expected of women in their time. The members of the Once-In-A-While Club demonstrated that women could be, and indeed were, interested in the political sphere. In so doing, they encouraged others to feel the same interest. While many Canadian women who entered the workforce to help the war effort in WWI were effectively dislodged when the men returned, the Once-In-A-While Club continued to thrive, as it does today, ninety plus years after its founding.
1. ”Dorthey Dix, “The Excitement of Being A Woman: A Writer Tells of Some of the things the Average Woman Finds Really Exciting Before and After Marriage,” The Sackville Post, (19 November, 1918) 3.
2. Alison Prentice, et al. Canadian Women: A History (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996), 171.
4. John G. Reid, “The Education of Women at Mount Allison University”, Acadiensis, 12 (1983) 31.
5. Prentice, et al. Canadian Women: A History, 234.
6. Some provinces granted women the right to vote in provincial elections before they were allowed to vote at the federal Level. In 1916, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta permitted women the right to vote provincially, with British Columbia and Ontario following suit in 1917, Nova Scotia in 1918 and New Brunswick in 1919. Did you know?’” See “McClung’s Mock Parliament”, 9 December 1974, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, 10 October 2005 http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-73-1450-9553/politics_economy/voting_rights/clip1
7. Prentice, et al, Canadian Women: A History, 222.
8. Nellie McClung’ Historica Minutes 2005 Historica, 7 April 2005, http://www.histori.ca/minutes
9. Morton, Desmond A Short History of Canada Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers Ltd., 1983, 146.
10. Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, 232.
11. ”Mount Allison University Archives (MAA), ‘Once-In-A-While Club’ fonds,, 7303/ 1.Minutes, 1917-1919.
13. John Reid, Mount Allison University: A History. Volume One: 1843-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 258.
14. MAA, ‘Once-In-A-While Club’, fonds, 7303/ 1.
16. ”MAA, ‘Once-In-A-While Club’ fonds, 7303/ 1.
18. MAA, ‘Once-In-A-While Club’ fonds, 7303/ 1.
19. ”MAA, ‘Once-In-A-While Club’ fonds, 7303/ 1.
21. Moira Armour and Pat Staton, Canadian Women in History: A Chronology. (Toronto: Green Dragon Press, 1990), 51.
22. MAA, ‘Once-In-A-While Club,’ fonds, 7303/ 1.
Armour, Moira and Staton, Pat Canadian Women in History: A Chronology, Toronto: Green Dragon Press, 1990.
Dix, Dorthey “The Excitement of Being A Woman: A Writer Tells of Some of the things the Average Woman Finds Really Exciting Before and After Marriage,” MtAU Library, MICRO 5454 Sackville Post 1917-1919, v.75, Nov 19 1918, 3.
“McClung's ‘mock parliament': Did you know?'” 9 December 1974 Canadian Broadcast Corporation 10 October 2005 http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-73-1450-9553/politics_economy/voting_rights/clip1
Morton, Desmond A Short History of Canada Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers Ltd., 1983.
Mount Allison University Archives, ‘Once-In-A-While Club'/fonds 7303/ 1.
‘Nellie McClung' Historica Minutes 2005 Historica 7 April 2005 http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?ID=10643
Prentice, et al. Canadian Women: A History Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996
Reid, John. Mount Allison University: A History. Volume One: 1843-1914 Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Reid, John. “The Education of Women at Mount Allison, 1854-1914" Acadiensis 12.2 (Spring 1983), 3 - 33