By Jean Blewett
Jean McKishnie Blewett (1862-1934) was a turn-of-the-last-century Canadian journalist, author, poet and women’s rights advocate. In September 1909, she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan during a two-month automobile tour of Western Canada to study the social conditions of the new pioneer settlements, particularly the circumstances of women. In the following account, Blewett’ offers an overall positive and sympathetic interpretation of the Doukhobor woman, paying particular attention to her unrelenting work ethic; her adoption of non-traditional man’s farm work in addition to her traditional domestic role; her unprecedented equality within Doukhobor society; and her unwavering commitment to Community life. At the same time, Blewett subjects the Doukhobor woman’s body to Victorian Anglo ideals of form and behaviour, seemingly concluding that the Doukhobor woman who performs undue physical labour loses her picturesqueness, comeliness, and contours, in direct contrast to the ideal life of an Anglo woman settler. Recent scholars have argued that by publishing descriptions of the Doukhobor woman engaged in hard farm labour in addition to doing ‘woman’s work’ Canadian media accounts such as this significantly shaped ‘public knowledge’ about the Doukhobors by focusing on the peculiarity of Doukhobor women’s bodies. Originally printed in Collier’s Weekly (n.d., n.p.) and reproduced in Frank Carrel, “Canada’s West and Farther West” (Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1911) at 227-235.
The Doukhobor woman is no Venus. A long while ago she acquired the habit of working, and, theorists to the contrary, hard, incessant work does not tend toward beauty of face or form. TEST
Taking her place at the plow when the first furrow is turned in the spring, planting, hoeing, making hay, harvesting the grain, threshing and grinding the same, doing the whole year round a man’s work, has given her the figure of a man. She has muscles instead of curves; there is no roundness or softness visible. The sun has burned her face brown and her eyelashes white. Her hands and arms are the hands and arms of a working man. But her life in the open has done this for her, it has given her a dignity of carriage and a strength and wholesomeness more pleasing than mere beauty.
The Community Life
Her dress is peculiar—she is a peculiar person. She wears an exceedingly full skirt. Indeed, when you first see her you wonder why Peter Veregin, with his rigid ideas of economy, does not order a style of garment which will not call for a double quantity of material. With this goes a jacket tied in at the waist with an apron, which, like everything else about the Doukhobor woman, is of generous proportions. On her feet are heavy shoes, and on her head the unfailing white covering, which is nothing more or less than a square of cotton folded once and tied under the chin.
The houses open on to a common court or dooryard, and in this the children are put to play and the bedding to air. Here in the evening the women gather with their embroidery frames to catch the last glimpse of sunlight for their work – pretty work it is and beginning to find a ready market. The hands holding the needle are coarse and hard from labor, but the flower and leaf which they bring out on the linen are dainty and exquisite as any lady of the land could do.
What the hearth is to the family circle the court is to the community circle, a common meeting-place for those who will sit silent and those who will talk. You notice this, it is the old who do the gossiping, the young who do the laughing. The middle-aged Doukhobor, to quote the little Galician girl at the post, “is of a sour face and still tongue.”
At the upper end of the court is the store, with its varied stock of merchandise; at the lower end the bath-house, which is at once the village sanitarium and its pride. Here go the Doukhobors for a general cleaning up each Saturday evening. The fire on this altar of cleanliness never goes out. If a man falls ill, instead of having a doctor he has a bath. If a child is taken with croup, measles, whooping-cough, or any of these ailments, that child is rushed to the bath. Let a woman show the first symptoms of headache, backache, or nerves, and she is given a course, short but efficacious, in the ‘health-house.’
The place boasts a brick stove out of all proportion to its size, a stone bath, and a sweating-room. A great place for the curing of fevers contracted while working on the railway or in the woods, the rheumatism of the ditches, bronchial affections, any and all the diseases which show themselves.
The houses, which run down each side of the street, are cleanly, comfortless places, as free from decoration as the women who preside over them. A place to eat in and sleep in, this is what the Doukhobor house is, and all it is. The fireplace, with its big oven, fills one end; the table the other, and along the wall runs a wide bench.
The Luxury of Scrubbing
It is to be wondered at that these hard working folk do not have some comforts in the home. A wise and sympathetic man who has done a great deal for them, and who has their confidence, said as much to them of late. They answered with a superior air that life was not made for comforts and ease-taking, but for work, much work. The bed is made upon the bench by the wall, and in the morning the housewife carries the mattress, quilts, and coverlets out of doors and spreads them on a structure built for the purpose. Thus is a double purpose served; the bedding is aired in hygienic fashion, and the house is left free to the spinning of carded wool or the weaving of gorgeous rugs, or some of the other industries, which go on with unflagging zeal. After being with her, I know the Doukhobor woman’s idea of heaven—a place where she will have a long stretch of golden street to scrub to her heart’s content. It is her one luxury, scrubbing, and she never stints herself.
She does not bother her head with cookbook or recipe. Her meals are like herself, substantial and wholesome. No flesh of fowl or beast, though prairie hens rear their broods on the outskirts of the village street, and, as for the wild ducks, no sooner is the song of the gun heard in the land than instinct prompts them to seek the ponds and creeks of the Doukhobor. Here, literally, none dare molest or make afraid – as more than one sportsman finds to his cost. The waters, black with teal, mallard, blue bill, and red-head, offer a great temptation. He steals a shot, maybe two, but before he has time to gather up the spoil, the avenger is upon him. If he is discreet he stands not on the order of his going.
They are no respecter of persons. The story goes that a certain man, who was poobah of the place in the hollow of his hand, went forth one fair September morning to shoot in the Doukhobor grounds. Suddenly there came bearing down upon him a couple of stalwart women. The Doukhobor women did not care who or what he was. He had broken one of their laws, violated a tenet of their faith. They took his ducks away, they threw him and his gun in the pond. When he had choked and spluttered till purple in the face, they pulled him out, put him in his rig, gave him the lines, and started the horse off on a gallop.
‘Why didn’t you put up a fight?’ a friend asked him later. ‘I wouldn’t have taken that from any two women under the sun.’ ‘Women’, sighed the poobah, his pride all gone; ‘they weren’t women – amazons, amazons, that’s what they were.’
The Doukhobor woman’s house is homemade, so is her furniture. She puts her heavy plates on the bare board, and beside them wooden spoons carved by the lads of the village. She serves porridge made of wheat grown on their own land, ground in their own mill, and a big blue pitcher of milk from their own cows. There is a basin of potatoes, a platter of eggs, another of bread cut from the immense brown loaves which only the Doukhobor women know the secret of: and for a luxury there is tea – but only as a luxury.
‘We eat not to pleasure in food, but to make strong,’ says the Doukhobor woman. ‘Meat is strengthening,’ you tell her. ‘Maybe, maybe,’ she makes answer, with that slow, superior smile of hers; ‘but we keep from tire long time. People who eat the flesh of bulls and heifers they tire more soon than Doukhobor. Yes, yes, the boss man who build railroad track he tell you so, too. It is not meat that makes one keep the strong arm and young face; it is the wind and sun and being among ground new plowed. Yes, yes, I think.’
The Austerity of Romance
The Doukhobor woman is eligible to membership in the council, which is a parliament of the people for the people. … This council is the beginning and the ending of all that pertains to law and order in the community. It determines questions, judges cases, settles disputes, adjusts wrongs. Its findings are final.
It was Peter Veregin who assigned to woman a place in this important body. ‘Our women work as hard for the community as we do, are equally interested in its welfare and prosperity. Why should they not have a voice in the council?’
There is no romance in the life of a Doukhobor woman. From a sturdy child with drab colored braids and a solemn face, she grows into a woman. The braids, still drab, are done round her head, and she is no whit less solemn. One day young Joseph, finding himself in need of a helpmate – which means a willing worker – takes her to his house. She is his woman. He does not bind himself to cherish and protect, she makes no contract to love and obey. In fact, there is no ceremony in connection with the mating. They know nothing about affinity, and, as for marriages being made in heaven, the self-sufficient Doukhobor would think it a reflection on his judgment and the woman an infringement on her rights, so to speak.
If you were to ask them if they loved each other they would answer vaguely that to love all people was good. That state of mind or emotions which we call ‘falling in love,’ with the acute joys and jealousies which accompany it, is to them apparently an unknown quantity. There may be a faint partiality in some direction, but it is a case of ‘Love me little, love me long,’ if it is love at all. They are willing to become partners, but as for the glow and gladness, the melting glance and the wild heartbeat, these form no part or parcel of a Doukhobor mating.
Her Maternal Patriotism
Faithfulness, which means much in any union, means more perhaps in this one consummated without the sanction of the law of the land. There is this to be said, cases of desertion are exceedingly rare.
If he has not enough of sentiment, temperament, call it what you will, to love his own woman to distraction, he is not apt to fall into the snare of loving some other woman. And so with his helpmate. She keeps the even tenor of her way, cooks his meals, nurses the children which come to the home, works late and early. Happy? Oh, well, happiness is a thing of comparison. If it were not Joseph it would be some other, since to mate with a man and bear children is a part of her duty to the community.
Rome in her mightiest days did not mean more to the Roman matron than the community means to the faithful, if unlettered Doukhobor woman
Several authors have attributed Jean Blewett’s visit to the Doukhobors to the year 1910: Laura Dale, Walking in Two Worlds (Friesen Press, 2019 at 6); Ella Thompson, “The Doukhobor Settlers of the Swan River Valley” in Manitoba History (Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013). However, an analysis of period newspaper stories confirms that the visit in fact took place in 1909. TEST
Engaged by a magazine syndicate that year to write a series of articles about the social life of Canada, Blewett embarked on a much-publicized tour of Western Canada. On June 29, 1909, she departed Toronto by train, arriving in Winnipeg on July 19. Two days later, she departed by automobile westward across the Prairies, reaching Calgary on July 26, Edmonton July 28, Peace River August 5, Vancouver August 14 and Victoria on August 20. Blewett then returned eastward from Vancouver on August 25, reaching Edmonton August 31, Red Deer September 17 and Winnipeg on September 22. It can be deduced that she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan on the final leg of her tour, between September 18 and 22, as she writes about the Doukhobors harvesting at the time.
For other articles written by Jean Blewett regarding her July 1909 visit to the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan, please see: