Learning, Limits, and Love: Maritime Girls in the Late 19th-century
Janet Guildford, Mount St. Vincent University



Anne of Green Gables, that most famous of Maritime girls, was an adventurous and independent little red head who enjoyed lots of freedom and fun. But Anne's life was make-believe; she was the heroine of a series of novels by Prince Edward Island writer Lucy Maude Montgomery. For real little girls from prosperous and respectable Maritime families, growing up in the late 19th century meant learning to accept limits in their lives. At home, at school and in church they were taught that their special role in society was to become wives and mothers, and to accept the fact that men made the decisions about public life.

By the middle of the 19th century, girls were as likely as boys to attend school, but they learned in all-girl schools or all-girl classes, and by the time they reached their teens the 'ornamental' subjects such as music, art and sewing were often more important than the academic courses. Middle-class Maritime girls had to wait until the 1870s and 1880s before opportunities to study at university or college opened up to them. But many women chose Normal School over university. There, they could train as school teachers, one of the only acceptable jobs for middle-class women.

However, everyone expected that a woman's 'real' work was to get married and have children. Choosing a husband was an important step, and many of the novels for young women offered advice about finding the right man.

After the wedding, young women were expected to give up their jobs and devote all their time to taking care of their homes, their husbands and their children. Custom and law ensured that husbands handled all family business, including managing property brought to the marriage by the woman. Not surprisingly, by the 1880s many educated Maritime women were beginning to protest their lack of power in their society, and they became leaders in an emerging women's movement that today we call 'the first wave of feminism.'