Women Bee-ing Neighbours


By Catharine Wilson, University of Guelph

Barn Raising Bee, c.1910.

Barn Raising Bee, c.1910. Wellington County Museum & Archives, ph2611.

Barn raisings, quilting “bees” and other reciprocal work take us into the heart of neighbourhood, a defining part of rural life.   Delving into old diaries from Ontario, Canada, 1830-1960, I analyze why and how men and women met the challenges of helping others.   My aim is to understand “neighbouring” in its real and idealized state and why it matters.

Women played a vital role in work bees though they held fewer than men.  Women’s work was not as conducive to working in large groups; the kitchen was a confined space and the help of a few daughters or relatives could reduce the tedious work.  In contrast, men needed large groups of other men to provide the combined strength to raise a barn or minimize the cost of expensive harvesting equipment.

Women organized bees to pick wool, spin yarn, pluck poultry and sew rags thereby reducing time-consuming work early in the production process.  The quilting bee, in contrast, created a final product that was long lasting and attractive and has become a central image in the feminist lexicon.  Women’s diaries situate quilting in the everyday.  They reveal the social context of quilting, the constraints of household time and space, and the solutions women found in utilizing neighbourhood resources.  Whereas men’s bees fit into the rhythms of the agricultural year, women’s bees fit into the rhythm of the family life cycle. Indeed, their need for quilts was greatest when the family was increasing in size, just when they had neither the time nor the space to make them.  Women with young children, therefore, relied on older and child-free women to provide the space and labour for quilting.

Women were also key participants in men’s bees as they provided the feast.  A good meal attracted guests, fuelled their energy and was the first instalment in the pay-back system, the climax of the day.  The hostess was expected to provide her best and neighbours knew what she could afford.  To live in a commodious frame house and only serve pork and peas was not adequate.  For the Brown’s barn raising, Gertrude  fed over 200 hundred people  with 15 pies, 125 tarts, 20 cakes, 120 buns, 3 hams and 35 lbs of beef. She had to delicately balance what other’s expected of her without overstepping neighbourhood standards for to deliberately out-do others promoted rivalry and struck at the heart of economy and neighbourly fair play.

Women were part of the rescue team at “bees-gone-wrong” and sometimes the victims.  The opportunity to drink and compete instilled high spirits at men’s bees which could lead to accidents and violence.  Evidence exists for over one- hundred serious accidents and seventeen murders at bees between the 1820s and 1930s.  With no professional police or emergency response available, neighbours took control.  Women comforted the bereaved and nursed the wounded while the men removed the dead and sought outside help.  Simmering marital problems often grew worse at the bee and reached their climax after it.  When Patrick Haley stabbed Margaret Ellis after the barn dance, the women attended to Margaret’s wounds until the doctor arrived more than two hours later.  Many women were widowed, when their husbands got lacerated in threshing machines or were crushed by rolling logs at a logging or raising bee.  In these cases, neighbouring women helped in the following months to ensure that the widow could continue to reside amongst family and friends.

Through their own reciprocal work and their participation in men’s bees, women demonstrated their skills in a public venue and set community standards of hospitality and aesthetics.  They actively participated in “neighbouring” which was a crucial component of individual farm operations and family sustenance.

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