What a beautiful Feburary morning it is here in rural Nova Scotia! My husband is downstairs working on my new studio space (and it is beautiful and sunny!) While doing some research, I came across this wonderful blog written by Dr. Lesley Hulonce called Sex in the Workhouse; Resistance, Submission or Coercion in her blog called The Whores of Yore. What a wonderful blog about women’s fight to control our own bodies and our own choices for our lives.
While it is clear that sexual relations did happen in the poorhouses, it was not always consensual. Some times women used sex as a bargaining tool for more food, a better blanket, or just plain survival in the institution. Everett Lewis, wife of famous Nova Scotia folk art painter Maud Lewis, was well known in the Town of Digby and surrounding communities as being “a rake”, which meant he would often force his sexual attentions (also known as Rape) on women. He was given the job as Night Watchman at the nearby Marshalltown Almshouse in the 1960s. One can only imagine the crimes against women he might have committed in that job!
Imagine yourself as a woman in a poorfarm or poorhouse, scared that you will be there for the rest of your life, stigmatized if you left, unable to get a job that pays you enough to live on (and we are STILL dealing with that issue, both men and women, in 2021 but women are still paid less than men) and a man in a position of power over you, your body, your food, your children, offers you a break if you will have sex with him. What would you do? You really do not know until you are in the situation. Postering and theorizing about what you would do is just that -posturing and theory. As men used sex as a tool of control, we used sex as a tool of resource to help ourselves and our children. We used the poorhouse to develop communities for help and support amongst other poor women
Women were not just victims of poverty and inequality. We fought back when and where we could. When I was a young unwed mother on social assistance in North Dartmouth back in the 1980s, I moved into a four unit apartment building where there were three other single moms on welfare. We helped each other out a great deal with childcare, money, transportation and, yes, beating up on ‘the system’ when required. We all became Community Activists who ganged up together to fight for our rights to humanity. We were not the first by any means as this story from the blog shows us…
In the City of London Poor Law Union, a relieving officer had to be rescued by the police from being beaten by ten young women who had applied to him for food and clothes, and took exception to be offered a bed for the night in the workhouse instead
When reading that, one cannot help but cheer for the ten young women. They are our grandmothers! Women are still carrying on the fight of their grandmothers for equality in all things – even the damn poorhouse.