When I was a kid, women weren’t allowed into beer parlours. These were male territory. Their purpose was not recreational. It was for drinking. There was no playing darts, no entertainment, no games of any kind. No standing up while drinking. You sat at a table and you drank.
Before my time, places like Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, according to both my grandfather and my grandmother, were not much more than a row of places to drink. A lot of men at the time were single men, often immigrants, working as laborers or tradesmen. There wasn’t anything to go home to except a rooming house. These places had one purpose, to separate as much payday money from the workingman as possible.
According to Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin (The Manitoba Historical Society) “By the end of the nineteenth century, Winnipeg had mushroomed into a bulging outpost of some forty-two thousand people, with an unsavoury reputation as one of Canada’s wickedest cities. In the over-crowded North End, inadequate housing and poor sewage made disease endemic, and poverty fostered crime of every sort.”
Times had started to change by the time I was born and when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Also, wicked as Winnipeg might have been, Gimli, although connected to Winnipeg by road and train, was distant from the city and any evil ways that remained.
In Gimli, the local hotel was the den of iniquity, male territory, meant for drinking and fighting. When the fishermen came from north in time for the Icelandic celebration, we kids used to go downtown and sit across the street from the hotel. There wasn’t much entertainment around so we got ours by watching the brawlers spill out the doors as the fishermen beat each other bloody. Our other entertainment was watching men stagger out the door so drunk they couldn’t walk a straight line. Sometimes, they collapsed in the centre of the street. They weren’t in any great danger because there was so little traffic. Still, someone would drag them off to the side of the road, roll them onto a sidewalk or prop them up against a wall or tree.
Fishermen lived hard lives but fishermen’s wives often lived harder lives. They usually got left behind with the kids when their husbands went north. Their husbands didn’t get paid until the fishing season was over. Some fishermen were on wages but some were on shares or contracts. They had to pay for their board and room and, by the time they were going home, there usually wasn’t a lot left on the credit side of the ledger. In the meantime, their wives had been making do with what money the fishing company had been willing to advance over the fishing season.
For those who got paid out on their return, the beer parlour was a dangerous lure. The fishermen had worked long hours, done hard work every day, seven days a week, risked their lives in terrible weather, lived in isolation. When they returned, they wanted to celebrate. The church didn’t provide coffee and rullapylsa and, even if it had, no one would have been interested. The fishermen wanted beer and bragging rights.
Faced with a desperate need to feed a family, the wives often sent word to the beer parlour for their husband to come home. Sometimes they sent a child, sometimes, they went themselves. The women and children were stopped at the front desk. The clerk would go inside the parlour. He never came back with a husband. The answer the wife received was any one of the the following:.
$1 “Nope, not here.” Ha, ha.
$2 “Just missed him.” Ha, ha, ha.
$3 “Just had a drink and left.” Ha, ha, ha, ha, Isn’t that a scream?
$4 “Hasn’t been in all day.” He, he,he,hah,hah, what a laugh.
$5 “Never heard of him.” That put her in her place. Hah, hah, ho, ho.
The only instance I’ve heard of in which a formidable woman shoved her way past the desk clerk, marched into the parlour, grabbed her husband by the scruff of his neck and propelled him out the door, ended in disaster. His humiliation was such that he shot himself. The startling thing is not that he shot himself but that people were outraged not by his spending all his money getting drunk but that his wife had the temerity to interfere.
Today, it seems unbelievable that women could have been treated the way they were but we have examples on the news every day of countries where women are still treated as chattels, where men are in control and won’t let women drive cars, where women can be murdered because some male relative feels his honour has been tarnished, where women can be stoned to death, or whipped to death, or hung because of an accusation of infidelity. Where a woman can be punished for having been raped.
We like to think of Iceland as a civilized country, we like to tell each other stories of how independent Icelandic women have been throughout history. It’s utter nonsense. The fact that half a dozen women over a thousand years managed to exert control over their lives has nothing to do with the reality of all the rest of the women. In Indriðason´s Silence of the Grave, he describes the brutal, endless physical abuse meted out to an Icelandic wife and the dismissive attitude of the police. The same was true in Manitoba. The police, faced with husbands, drunk or sober, beating up their wives, shrugged and said domestic problems weren’t their concern. A relative of mine sometimes beat up his wife so badly that she had to be rescued by relatives and spend weeks in bed recovering.
Domestic violence? It’s still all around us. Women can go into beer parlours and other drinking establishments now. They can’t be stopped at the front desk of the parlour and be the joke of both the clerk and the patrons. And there are alternatives. There used to be no jobs for women. Now there are. There is progress because some behaviours are no longer acceptable. The police have been forced to take domestic violence seriously. Not because they want to. The attitude of a lot of the police toward women is clear in the appalling attitude toward women in the RCMP. Toward the women murdered on the Picton farm. Attitudes have, however, changed enough that the abusive men in the RCMP look and sound ignorant, stupid, immoral. When something is seen as ignorant, stupid, immoral, the possibility of change exists.
In Harry Gutkin and Mildred Gutkin’s essay, they say, “The two women practitioners were frequently called to the jails, where the rowdiest of the ravaged prostitutes were confined, and where beaten and homeless women found a shelter of last resort, male and female prisoners housed together in the same wards.” Cora Hind wrote about conditions in the jails.
“The cells are totally devoid of light or ventilation, except such as may be had through the doors … No sleeping accommodation is provided, and no bedding is allowed, except that blankets are sometimes given to the women … The wards are infested with vermin, drugs, lice, and cockroaches … Some of the most abandoned are afflicted with syphilis and other loathsome diseases, and healthy prisoners are exposed to the danger of becoming similarly affected. The men and women are obliged to use the same towels, closets, etc., so that those who are healthy can scarcely escape the consequences.
There was a storm of protest against the indecency of discussing such things in public…. Both the writer and the sponsoring group were roundly denounced for this assault on the sheltered innocence of womanhood and, Cora Hind remembered, fathers forbade their wives and daughters to attend the troublesome WCTU.”
Beaten and homeless women. Needing shelter. Men outraged that a woman should drag her husband out of an establishment so he wouldn’t drink away everything he’d worked for and so she and their children would have food and shelter. Women used as prostitutes, often by the same men who railed against articles being written about the whorehouses because it would assault the “sheltered innocence of womanhood.” Fathers forbidding their wives and daughters to attend meetings where women’s rights were discussed.
Pick a town, any town. The one I know is Gimli because I grew up there. I expect it was no better, nor worse than any other. It may even have been better than many for here the Icelandic suffragettes thrived.
It’s not so long ago that women were fighting for the right to be recognized as human. Fighting for the right to vote. Fighting for the right to have jobs. Fighting for the right to have legal protection.
Not so long ago? The Picton slaughter took place how long ago?
Two and a half years ago, four women were drowned to satisfy a man’s honour.Two and a half years ago. But, of course, we can console ourselves by saying the killers were foreign, they were immigrants, they didn’t have Canadian values. Canadian values? Like those displayed in the RCMP toward female recruits? Like the attitudes still displayed toward prostitutes? Like the attitudes displayed in many work places? Like every report of women being murdered in domestic disputes? Like murder on an Alberta highway.
Four women drowned. Sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, and their stepmother, Rona Amir Mohammad. A father, mother, brother convicted of first degree murder. A society where a man´s honour is so important that his daughters´ lives are an inconsequential price to pay to redeem it. Foreign values from a foreign country. But what is the degree of separation in attitude toward women in the joke hiding-from-wife phone rates and women as objects to be disposed of to redeem some man´s twisted honour? We’ve come a ways. But how far do we still have to go?