Constance Backhouse's Petticoats and Prejudice

Constance Backhouse's Petticoats and Prejudice

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As students sit in class and look up at their female professors they do not think of all of the women who sacrificed themselves for the opportunity for other women to be seen as societal equals. Each of us should place ourselves in the birthplace of the women’s movement that Constance Backhouse depicted in her book Petticoats and Prejudice. After reading this book all man ought to be ashamed of being part of the heritage that contributed to the hardships that were forced upon women of the 19th century. The misfortunes that Zoé Mignault, Amelia Hogle, Mary Hunt, Ellen Rogers, Emily Howard Stowe, Euphemia Rabbitt, and Clara Brett had throughout their lives are something that nobody would want to experience themselves.
     When looking back at the developing countries of the nineteenth century, it is quite simple to see that Canada was one of the most advance countries in the world. Eventhough this free and democratic country advanced itself in the areas of equality throughout the years; there will forever be inequalities for some, and struggles for many. Petticoats and Prejudice gives clear and precise examples of the hardships women fought through in the 1800s.
The primary focus of the book was to give a manifest and latent demonstration of how the biased attitudes of society reflected the legal system, and vice versa. There were several issues that were discussed in the book, including abortion, infanticide, sexual assault, marriage, divorce, separation, child custody, seduction, rape, prostitution and labour legislation. Very early in the book it was made quite evident the struggles that women had encountered in their tough lives. It demonstrated their fight for the rights and privileges that many women of the world so commonly enjoy.
     The first chapter in the book dealing with marriage demonstrates a clear and precise attitude towards women and their social standings in society. The Zoé Mignault case was a perfect example of how the patriarchal system was in affect. The father controlled every aspect of a young girl’s life, including picking a husband for her. The legal system at this time simply encouraged this type of action and supported these types of power imbalances.
     The book then flows into the section of seduction. This chapter looks at how women were mistreated by their employers as well as other men. One example it examined would be the difficult times women had in trying to get guys to face up to their actions after pregnancy.

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Eventually with women voicing their opinions and with the aid of John Charlton, it led to the decriminalization of the act of seduction.
     The third chapter was in concern to rape. This chapter provided a chilling tale into the lives of the victims. These women were not only poorly treated by society but as well by the police force and the legal system. Two women, Mary Hunt and Ellen Rogers, had their house broken into where they were brutally sexually assaulted for several hours by approximately fifteen men. When one the women had finally found a police officer and returned to the scene of the crime (where the men were still there) the officer told her to make an official complaint in the morning. It was at that time that women needed to persue their own complaints. During the trial it only took ten minutes for a jury of all men to return and find a verdict of not guilty. To further illustrate how terrible things were in regards to women in the 19th century there was the case of Euphemia Rabbitt. She was a well-respected woman that while being attacked by a rapist, she grabbed a hold of a shotgun and killed him. The most important aspect about this case was that Mrs. Rabbitt not only defended her body during the attempted rape but she also defended her social standing and had her charges dismissed because of a plea of self-defense.
     In part three of the book: The Nineteenth Century Family, there was a story of Alberta Gardner who sought divorce and was socially ruined by it. She found notoriety because she stood up for herself by asking for an absolute divorce from her abusive husband and made it easier for others to follow her path and receive a divorce.
     Then book then moves into its final part. Part four deals with prostitution, labor and the first women lawyer. The most remarkable injustice and cold heartedness was when they sent a nine-year-old named Mary Ann Gorman to thirty days of hard labor. This demonstrated that the injustices did not only reach women but girls of all ages. The legal injustice was not bias of age, but the only criterion was that you need to be a female. When looking at the labor market in this century it was very simple to see the differences between gender and the amount they earned. The earnings that men and women received during this time were quite different. Men earned almost three times more than women did during one week of work. Also men would venture out and work ten hour days while the women stayed home and worked fourteen for free, and for no respect.
The two women who made the biggest differences in legal and societal feminine equality are Emily Stowe and Clara Brett. These women helped pave the road for the rest of women in the future. Emily Stowe was the first woman doctor and Clara Brett was the first woman to pass the bar. These women’s perseverance lead to relatively huge changes in Canadian social views towards women.
     Each person, situation and court case that Backhouse considers for her book helps demonstrate the injustices found throughout the law and society. Each story gives actual examples of the social and legal conditions that affected women in the 1800s. It showed the individual situations that each woman endured and explicitly established the amount of hard and tedious work that each had in changing the world for women.
     One of the flaws the book had was in its first chapter. The chapter involving marriage was more on the topic of racism and ethnicity and not the injustices of women. For an introductory chapter that should capture the readers’ attention it might have the power to turn the reader off and put the book away. The largest disappointment came when I failed to see any ties from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth. Backhouse does not relate her findings to any contemporary issues of today’s woman. Perhaps finishing with this would strengthen the idea that women of that time succeeded at a much higher level, and what they did was more than a simple personal victory; their victory evolved into something of great importance that changed Canadian lives forever.
This book was very easy to read, it was not loaded with legal jargon and it did not push a feminist view. For a non-reader the book can be overwhelming at first, but when begging to read the attention grabbing stories, it is quite easy to read a chapter or two in an hour. The author’s use of material is more than impressive. With over one hundred pages of notes and bibliographical work, you can’t help but appreciate the work the author did in conveying her message. The reader is very convinced in believing what she has written, with her strong and rich historical material. Her sources date back to the nineteenth century, so it is quite easy to see that what she has written is factual, and not speculated. By doing this she is strongly reinforcing the validity of her work because the date of this material matches with what she is describing.
Either you are a student of feminism, law, sociology, history or simply enjoy reading, this book is one that can educate anyone. It is filled with credible evidence and written by a respected professor of law at Western University. Constance Backhouse has received awards for her work done on women in the justice system, and has written several books on the topic.
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