The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1850-1950


320 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-6760-3
DDC 306.3'615'09713





Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is Supervisor of the Legislative Research Service at the
New Brunswick Legislature and author of The Rise of French New


As Parr puts it in her conclusion, “This book has been a long
lingering amid the particularities of daily life in Paris and Hanover
[Ontario], listening to talk exchanged across kitchen tables, parsing
payrolls and ledgers of plants now empty or gone.” It is far more.
Indeed, it is one of those rare studies that break new ground and give
scholars new perspectives.

Rarely do academics immerse themselves so completely and widely in
their subject matter. Besides doing the usual scholarly research most
efficiently and thoroughly, Parr actually spent four months in each of
the two plants, Penmans’ textile mill in Paris and Knetchtel’s
furniture plant in Hanover. She gained the confidence of key resource
people in both communities, using her portable computer as a “good
conversation opener,” but she did not begin formal interviewing until
she had nearly finished examining a huge body of documentary evidence.
During the final three years of her mammoth task, the two factories
closed down.

She deliberately chose the two communities not only because each was
dominated by one industry but also—and more importantly—because
Penmans’ labor force was overwhelmingly female and Knetchtel’s
correspondingly male. Most of the mill families of Paris had been
brought over from the English east midlands through assisted-passage
schemes between 1906 and 1928; Hanover’s furniture workers were
second- or third-generation German Canadians.

The first half of the book deals with the women of the mill; the second
half is about the men furniture workers. In the end, readers get a much
more detailed picture of the women—not because they share the
author’s gender, but because the women generally seem more willing to
discuss their lives and their feelings. Their accounts of their 1949
strike were far more personal, more vivid, than those of a similar
confrontation the Hanover furniture workers and their families endured a
decade earlier.

This is far more than a comparative study of labor unrest amid changing
economic and social times. Parr uses her formidable skills as a social
historian to delve into the relationship between gender roles in the
workplace and in the home. She shows how the factory paternalism of the
furniture plant carries over into the workers’ homes and how, by
contrast to the Paris situation, the men rather than women more often
occupied secondary work roles. She notes that “the processes by which
jobs have been assigned by gender have not been much studied.” She
sees a great opportunity here to solve the riddle of why “a job that
is clearly and exclusively women’s work in one factory, town or region
may be just as exclusively men’s work” elsewhere.

“There is clearly something more to the family man . . . ,” argues
Parr, “than his relation to the market alone can explain.” And she
provides ample proof, with countless examples gleaned from vivid
comments in numerous taped interviews. She worked first from a
questionnaire (which included sections on personal and family history,
work history, married and community life, housing and union activity),
but the subsequent interviews were not as closely structured. The result
is truly “living history” that we can share.

If you thought that single working mothers are a recent phenomenon,
this study will reveal that it was the norm for scores of women working
at Penmans’ Ltd. We learn how they used an extended female network to
meet economic and social challenges. We also discover that “when both
husband and wife worked in the mills for similar remuneration,” men
were most likely to “turn their hands to cooking”—although most
drew the line at being seen hanging out the family wash. In the
furniture town of Hanover, the man was the main wage-earner, while
unmarried daughters, for instance, stayed at home to help with the
chores until they left to form their own households, usually in their
late teens.

Social historians trying to find meaning in twentieth-century issues
would be well advised to employ the techniques and, above all, the
approach used by Parr. Let us hope that they do, for if they have even
half the skills and ingenuity of this scholar, they will build on the
foundations established by this fascinating work.


Parr, Joy., “The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1850-1950,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,