From styling hair at the local beauty parlour to lighthouse keeping, women in pre-Confederation Newfoundland played a variety of roles. There were midwives, like Elizabeth Austin and Kirkina Mukko and ship owners like Jane Bartlett.
However, the most common role that women took on outside the home was that of school teacher. They were often young, unmarried women who look barely older than the children they're charged with instructing. You can see this in a 1942 photograph from Haystack, Placentia Bay, where the teacher stands in the back row with her eldest pupils who range from pre-school age to adolescents.
Many women worked as "domestics" during the 19th and 20th centuries, providing live-in household help for working families. Some women travelled to St. John's for work, while still others went as far as Boston and New York to take on domestic posts within middle to upper-class households.
Other women found work on the vessels that travelled to and around Newfoundland and Labrador. Although mostly made up of men, several women worked as stewardesses on the coastal boats, changing beds and cleaning the cabins as well as any common areas on board.
One of the most important roles that women played in rural Newfoundland and Labrador was that of midwife. With long distances between outport villages and the hospitals that populated more developed regions of the province, midwives played an invaluable role in the community. They delivered babies, paying equal attention to the mothers in labour, and very often they were called on for other medical matters—even undertaking the dead when no one else was available. To hear a firsthand account of midwifery in rural Newfoundland, listen to excerpts from an interview with Elizabeth Austin.
Both World Wars opened up the labour market to women in Newfoundland and Labrador, with so many of the working-aged men shipped overseas. There were opportunities away from the home front as well. Frances Cluett worked as a school teacher in Belleoram, Fortune Bay until she signed on as a volunteer nurse during World War One and spent four years as a medical aid in England, France and what was then Constantinople.
In this exhibit alone we learn the stories of a teacher-turned-war nurse, a ship owner, a photographer, two different midwives, a storyteller and accordion player, a homemaker and a rug hooker among many others.