Skip Navigation
Foothill College Header
Business and Social Sciences
spacing image
spacing image
spacing image

Patricia Gibbs

Leisure Studies 10 (1991)219-233 0261-4367/91 $03.00+.12 (c) 1991 E. & F.N. Spon

Women, leisure and familism: relationships and isolation in small town Canada


Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada T6E 2H9

*present address: Department of Recreation Administration, Malaspina College, Noneimo, British Columbia, Canada V9R 555.

In this paper, a study of a hinterland community in British Columbia serves to raise two kinds of questions about constraints on women's leisure. The first of these concerns ideological constraints. It explores how received ideas about the family and about male leisure have helped to construct women's lack of leisure, and considers whether 'leisure' is simply an inadequate and even misleading category for talking about women's lives. The second concerns whether the 'balance' that the women in the study talked about instead of leisure is especially problematic in small and isolated communities. It is suggested that although many of the constraints these women cite are instances of forces that oppress women everywhere, women in rural communities can experience them in particularly acute ways. This study of women's leisure is thereby articulated within a growing body of work on rural women.


The research from which this paper is drawn investigated women's experiences of leisure and the constraints on women's leisure, in a small and isolated resource industry town. The study involved participant observation, and individual and collective interviews with a variety of women contacted through a local college and women's centre. It developed that when the women were invited to talk about their leisure, they spoke in two voices. With one voice, many women simply did not relate to traditional concepts of leisure; 'free' time, freedom from obligations. Yet the same women often spoke thoughtfully and freely about concepts like wellbeing, and about achieving a different balance in their lives between facilitating the happiness of significant others and doing things for themselves.

What is highlighted, in our view, are two different kinds of barriers to women achieving this balance. At one level, there are constraints deriving from ideologies of familism and patriarchy - primary domestic responsibilities and received ideas about family and women's roles - which work to the disadvantage of women everywhere. At another level, it appears that there are barriers that are particularly acute in isolated resource-based communities. These include a lack of public transportation and other public facilities, community designs that isolate women in their homes, family transiency, exceptionally poor job opportunities for women, and the politics of being 'different' in a community of this size. All of these are illustrated in the experiences of women living in a British Columbia town.

Familism, leisure, and leisure studies

Luxton (1980, 1987), discussing family life in a northern Canadian mining town, suggests that 'the family' exists at two distinct levels. At a practical level it refers us to real economic units and to living arrangements which in fact organize domestic and personal life. At another level, though, 'the family' refers to a widespread and deeply embedded system of ideas and ideals about how men, women and children should live together (1987, p. 238). It is this system of ideas and ideals which, following Luxton, we call the ideology of familism. Familism tends to assume that all persons within the family lead similar lives, or at least that family members experience family life in the same basically positive ways. This assumption persists despite considerable evidence that in patriarchal societies, women and men often experience the rhythms of a family's life together from quite different perspectives. As a result, they can live quite different and separate 'realities' (Rubin, 1976; Code, 1987). This dimension of familist ideology has been particularly problematic for leisure studies; and it was a primary focus of this study.

Feminist criticism of early work in leisure studies has drawn attention not only to the fact that most research and theory was about men, and followed the 'male as norm' principle (Deem, 1986, 1987; Bella, 1989). It has also thrown into relief the extent to which even work that did say something about women's leisure has tended to equate women's leisure with family leisure.The problem, of course, is that this understates and indeed often completely misses the real work that women do in order to make leisure possible for other family members. It is an integral, though not always foregrounded, dimension of familist ideology that 'the family that plays together, stays together'. However, in this ideal of family leisure, it is women who are routinely expected to sustain the home as a comfortable and happy 'leisure centre' for spouse and children, and to facilitate other family members' leisure activities, both inside and outside the home. It is also routinely taken for granted that women will be responsible for the production of 'special events', like Christmas and birthday celebrations, and family holidays, and will provide the emotional management and support which make all of the above go smoothly (e.g. Cerullo and Ewen, 1984; Bella, 1987; Cheal, 1987).

The point is that much of this is work, even though the pleasure that is produced by that work may be a profound source of enjoyment for the women concerned. However in equating women's leisure with family leisure, familist ideology has the effect of obscuring the work women do to make leisure happen, for the family collectively and for individual family members. It also obscures the very real additional burdens and stresses that the production of family pleasures can create for women (Bella, 1987), especially when resources are stretched, and when other family members take this work for granted. Furthermore, many leisure activities take on different meanings when done with children. It is not that cross-country skiing is necessarily enjoyed less when done at a child's pace (though Dad may typically ski on ahead). It will, however, be enjoyed differently; and the general point is that for women, in many of the activities of 'family leisure', the boundaries between caring work and leisure are ambiguous and difficult to define.

Finally, feminist leisure research has now made it clear that freedom from domestic obligations is a much rarer experience for most women than it is for men. The difficulty most women experience in making time for 'self', or in pursuing their own leisure activities outside the home contrasts sharply with the 'normality' of men's involvement in such activities, and of nights out 'with the boys'. At the same time, all of the above issues are rendered more complex and problematic for many women by the ambivalence they themselves feel about the very idea of leisure as 'freedom from obligation', and the real satisfaction they get from facilitating the happiness of others (Gilligan, 1982; Lenskyj, 1988; Bella, 1989). Articulating and understanding this ambivalence became one of the central themes in the research.

The study and its setting

The larger study from which these observations are derived (Hunter, 1989) sets out to explore the leisure opportunities that were or were not available to women in resource industry communities, and to explore women's leisure in the lifestyle that is characteristic of these often isolated towns. The focus of the study had to shift and expand, however, when the women in the study simply had very little to say about leisure, when it was defined in any of the conventional ways outlined above. They had difficulty relating to concepts that had little reality in their own lived experiences. However, when invited to talk about their lives and their pleasures in whatever terms were meaningful to them, they had a great deal to say that was germane to 'leisure'.

Cranbrook is a small city of approximately 15000 residents, located in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. The city lies in a geographically isolated area between the Purcell Mountains to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east. Resource extraction (mining and forestry operations) is the economic base of the region. The largest employers are the Canadian Pacific Railway (which carries raw materials from the interior to the coast) and Crestbrook Forest Industries. Males in these industries are unionized, and get good wages (when they are working). However women are still largely excluded from jobs in the woods, mines, mills and loading docks. Professionally qualified women can seek a limited number of jobs in the public services: e.g. local schools and hospitals. Other women are effectively restricted to secretarial work, and retail or fast food sales.

The study period was one year, beginning in April 1988. It involved participant observation on the part of the investigator, as a part-time employee of the local community college, and as a member of the local Women's Centre. The College offers a variety of job-oriented programmes, from two-year diploma programmes to much shorter adult upgrading or skill-specific courses. It also offers some university transfer courses. Students are more likely to be working class (young people from professional or business families tend to go away to university), while faculty and staff are middle class. Although the investigator was not involved with the Women's Centre before the study, it was suggested as a good place to find women who might like to talk about their lives in Cranbrook. It turned out to offer many opportunities for informal interaction with a varied population of women. These included both professional and working-class women, and women who had moved to Cranbrook in the last few years, as well as a few who had grown up there. The Centre runs programmes like a battered women's support group, job re-entry classes, a speakers' series, 'drop-ins', and social events. During the study period, it was also the focal point of advocacy work for better day care, for transit, and for a women's studies programme at the local high school. Single parents are certainly over-represented at the Centre, compared to the general Cranbrook population. However the Centre also attracts a much broader group of women who are not fully satisfied with their lives in Cranbrook, and who have needs or aspirations as women that are not acknowledged by more traditional local institutions (e.g. churches, service clubs). Conversely the Centre does not attract (and the study sample does not represent) women who are completely happy with 'traditional' family life and/or with life in Cranbrook. Indeed it attracts some hostility from such women, as well as from 'town fathers'.

The research also involved a series of semi-structured interviews with 21 women, and less formal (but still lengthy and repeated) conversations with more than 30 other women. Most of these women were connected with either the College (eight) or the Women's Centre (11). Four were members of a Recreation Integration Committee, a group seeking recreation provision for handicapped young people (in two cases, this overlapped with other involvements). The interview subjects were chosen to try to encompass, as far as possible in a small sample in a small community, a range of ages, class and educational backgrounds, and family circumstances. They ranged from 23 to 55 years, and from University graduates to high school dropouts. Of the 21 women, only one had never married (single adult women tend to leave communities like Cranbrook, for reasons which will become clearer). Eleven women were married, while nine were separated or divorced; only two of the latter were living in other relationships at the time of the study. Eighteen of the women had at least one child, and most had more than one. Finally, the study included group discussions about 'leisure', in which the investigator brought her tentative findings and analyses to the interview subjects for their reactions.

Regardless of age, marital status or social class, the interview participants talked of the loneliness and isolation that they had experienced in Cranbrook. Some said that Cranbrook was a 'cliquey' place, while others had looked for friends in agencies such as the churches. Exacerbating the feelings of loneliness felt by many of the women was that they did not have extended family in the community. Most had left their mothers, sisters and oldest friends in other towns in order to come to Cranbrook. In the winter, treacherous weather conditions make travel to see friends or relatives in other towns very difficult, if not impossible. This meant that a significant social, financial and emotional support was lost.

Discussion: seeking a balance between self and others

The initial interview began by inquiring into where the women had grown up, and when and why they had moved to Cranbrook. The talk then moved to the women's lives in Cranbrook: their routines, what they liked and disliked about the town, how they had made friends, what activities they and their families were involved in. Here the discussions were clearly entering terrain normally considered leisure; yet women who were talking freely about their lives in Cranbrook found it difficult to talk directly about leisure. When initially invited to describe their leisure time or leisure activities, they mostly denied they had any.

'Barbara' is a married woman with several children, one of whom is profoundly handicapped. She works part-time at the public health centre as an infant care worker and she volunteers on the Cranbrook recreation integration committee. She commented that '. . . Leisure is free time . . . basketball . . . but I don't get any of that.'

'Holly', an upper-middle class mother of four said, 'Leisure to me would be doing what I really like. I don't get these feelings a lot . . . .' Holly has lived in many different communities throughout British Columbia, moving for her husband to set up different companies. She was a part-time worker at the College and was not fond of her work there. She would have preferred to work in the public schools with children, but there were no jobs for her there. She felt that because she had fought with several public school officials about getting classroom aids for her handicapped child, they would not employ her.

'Susan', upper-middle class and married, a mother of one child, said, 'My husband's whole life is more amenable to leisure. He can do what he wants, when he wants.' Susan works part-time as a teaching assistant. She does not prefer this kind of work, but she does it because there are no jobs for her in the medical laboratory field that she had found fulfilling when she worked in the city. It was not until after she moved to Cranbrook for her husband to take a job that she discovered that the work that she had previously done was not done here.

The common meanings of free time, of self-selected activities, and of freedom from obligation were the ones these women attached to 'leisure', but they were quick to add that they never experienced it. Sometimes this led to further discussion about why these things were so rare in women's lives, and about the features of life in Cranbrook and of family life in Canada, that had produced this situation. Yet it was also true that when women were invited to talk about experiences that give them happiness, fulfillment, or pleasure, (i.e. without using the word 'leisure') many of the same women had a great deal to say. They talked about a balance between self and others that was not reducible to specific times or activities. They also talked of times and activities and relationships which clearly were sources of happiness, but for which 'leisure' did not seem an appropriate name.

There are two related issues in this difficulty with the language of leisure. The first of these, as Bella puts it, is that our standard concept of leisure, derived from men's experience of employment and family in industrial capitalism,'. . . is often assumed to require a level of freedom from obligation that is rarely available to women' (1989, p. 151). Caring and nurturing involve relationships and responsibilities that are ongoing, not easy to compartmentalize into work and leisure, or to suspend while you read a book, go for a run, or watch a TV programme. Moreover, though Bella is careful to add that the same difficulties would be experienced by male care-givers, the ideologies of familism and patriarchy have meant that care-giving is rarely shared on anything like an equal basis. Women are much more likely to (have to) assume the primary responsibility, and to enter more fully into the relationships with the cared-for that derive from that.
Women in Cranbrook made many comments that pointed to how this full-time sense of responsibility for the well-being and happiness of loved ones had placed limitations on their own lives. 'Nancy', an upper middle-class married woman whose children had grown up and left home, described how she had taken up painting and calligraphy after her family had grown up, and how she had realized only then the importance of making time for self. She had only recently begun to 'find herself' and build a self-esteem that was based in her own realized talents rather than in her family. She described how for years - when she was a child, then a young working woman, through her marriage and her years of child raising - she always did things to please others before herself. Now, she states,'. . . Leisure is my fantasy life, my refuge . . . .' Now, she has an artist's studio in her basement and she fills her days creating and discovering works of art. In her spare time, she has begun to teach painting and drawing classes to other local women. She feels that this helps other women who spend their lives trying only to please others, with no knowledge of their own needs, hopes, dreams, ambitions and potentials, to'. . . open a door to their own self-understanding'. 'Nancy' has opportunities to do the things that she wants, partly because her spouse works full-time and she is able to do as she pleases in town.

However, for 'Dawn', a single parent on income assistance, experiencing any sense of 'leisure' is difficult if not impossible. She spends her days just 'trying to get by' and to provide things for her son to do. She has no car and can frequently be seen pulling her son around town in a small wagon as he is too heavy to carry very far. She does not like the fact that many people see her and know that she does not have very much, but she has no other choice if she wants to take her son out. She describes leisure as '. . . not being obligated at all - I never really experience it. Sometimes, once a year or so, I take Michael to a friend's place and plan to do nothing for the whole weekend. I buy a cheap bottle of champagne and sit in the bathtub with a bubble bath and a novel.' In her circumstances, when freedom from obligation is both rare and unpredictable, the practice and development of her own talents is difficult to formulate even as an ambition.

At the same time, the care-giver relationship typically involves feelings that make 'freedom from obligation' an idea many of these women express ambivalence about. They express resentment at the very 'normalcy' of the demands made on them, at being taken for granted by other family members, and at the absence of reciprocity. Yet they also speak of real joy in their relationships with their children (especially), real joy in seeing and making possible other family members' happiness, and real pleasure in sharing happy times with loved ones. Indeed this was the aspect of leisure that many of the women dwelt on as being most important. It is 'meeting friends and being with family', 'being with people and really caring about them', 'It's not just an activity; it's being able to strengthen relationships', said 'Kate', 'Annette', and 'Holly'. Even though some of these leisure times and activities meant extra work for the women - having friends over, taking a young child skiing (or shopping), organizing a family camping holiday - when other family members visibly enjoyed these activities and enjoyed each other, this was warmly remembered.
Here the women were saying similar things to the women in other studies cited above, about the importance of relationships to the enjoyment of much 'leisure'. In particular, they echoed things Cerullo and Ewen's (1984) respondents said about the pleasure they took in seeing their husbands enjoy doing things with the kids. This contrasted, in turn, with sadness at the recognition of differences: that 'normally' their husbands put work or activities with male friends ahead of family activities, and that for so many of the men, the quality of the activity seemed to be more important than simply doing something together. All this lends support to Bella's proposals about how the significance of leisure may lie less in particular activities than in the relationships (and this can include friendships, as well as family) which are rehearsed and strengthened in those activities (see also Pogrebin, 1987). We are led to consider whether 'freedom from obligation' may be an ideal that both reflects and constructs a very partial and very male understanding of what human fulfillment and pleasure is about.

Having raised this prospect of a reworking of the meanings of leisure which would give less weight to freedom and self-actualization, and more to relationships, however, it needs immediately to be qualified. It is important first to preclude any suggestion that the pleasure women express about facilitating others' happiness demonstrates natural proclivities. This position has been used too often to keep women in the home, servicing their husband's and childrens' accomplishments (in leisure pursuits, as well as work and school). It is also important, moreover, that this understanding of the importance of relationships, an awareness and perhaps a wisdom which is forged in many women's life experience, not be devalued as 'women's knowledge' or seen simply as part of women's 'nature'. It is knowledge, often hard-earned knowledge, and it is important knowledge for persons of both sexes (see Code, 1988, pp. 47-9). Indeed what most of the women in the Cranbrook study insisted on was the importance of achieving a balance between doing things for others and developing themselves.

'Andrea', a single middle-aged mother on income assistance who attends Women's Centre programmes, felt that'. . . Leisure for me is having fun with my kid but it's also being able to do things without him'.

'Holly', the mother of four referred to above, was quite concerned about the amount of effort she put into caring for others and about the fact that no one took care of her. She stated'. . . There needs to be more equality. . . I want more of an opportunity to just be myself, rather than to always be something for everybody else'.

'Ellen', a middle-class married mother of three sons, felt that lack of opportunity to develop her own interests began when she married and had grown steadily stronger as she raised a family. Her husband and three sons are quite athletic, they are always out hunting, fishing and playing hockey. 'Ellen' is not athletic; but sometimes she goes with her family when they are out doing the activities that they like, because she is lonely at home. 'Ellen' is artistic, but has let her artwork go after years of working in the home and raising the kids. She does not feel that she has the opportunity now to take up her art again. She says she is very depressed and frustrated with her life. She is most frustrated by the feeling that she has nothing left to give her family. She has given of herself until there is nothing left and she is bitter that she gave so much and never developed her own self. Deciding to leave her family in order to resurrect her own self, 'Ellen' states:
When I'm gone, I want to take art classes again, I'd like to go to Australia, and maybe open a business. I used to go to the opera. . . now all there is is hunting and fishing. I feel guilty if I don't let them do what they want . . . There always seems to be money for hunting, but none to go to the opera in Spokane.
'Ellen's' words express some of the profound desperation of her situation. Caught between the knowledge that she must take better care of her own needs, and the realization that her family has no understanding of this, she is forced to leave the situation completely and to deal with the guilt caused by her decision.

'Nancy' considers that a good life goal to work toward is to '. . . Have a few more close relationships, better friendships, and a good, challenging job'. Other women, such as 'Holly', emphasize personal empowerment, though not one that excludes others:
I like to do things in the house that aren't housework, like projects. Wallpapering, working in the yard . . . I learned to ski this year - I love it because I actually found out I'm capable of doing it for one thing! Also it's not competitive, it can be for everyone. I hate competitions, and with skiing all of us can go and have fun and it's not competitive.
Barriers to balance

None of the women felt happy about constantly servicing others' needs and subordinating their own interests to those of other family members. Like the women described by Talbot (1989), many spoke of wishing their spouses would respect and take an interest in things they liked. They believed in the importance of relationships, but they also believed that caring needed to be not only shared but reciprocated. There are profound obstacles to achieving this balance in a community such as Cranbrook, though, and these will be the focus of the final section of this paper. The analysis will try to make some distinctions between obstacles which are general across Canadian society (and probably other Western industrial societies), and those which are specific to, or at least sharpened by, life in a peripheral community like Cranbrook.

Certainly patriarchy and familism have to be recognized, both as ideology and as concrete social arrangements which together limit women's access to resources and opportunities everywhere. The general ways in which familist ideas and patriarchal structures affect women are too well known to need repetition. However it will not surprise readers anywhere to find women in Cranbrook such as 'Natalie', a middle-class married mother of one child, expressing frustration with the societal structures and ideologies that inhibit so many women:
I find that they structure their whole lives around their husbands, they're dependent on them and won't do anything without their permission, but at the same time their husbands don't like to do anything with their wives. The guys go out and do this or that, and the wives are at home looking after the babies and cooking dinner. They don't have a lot of recreation and they don't get out of the house.
'Natalie' did not, at the time of the interview, have paid employment. Previously, she had worked as a real estate salesperson, but she found the commissions on house sales in Cranbrook too small (Cranbrook's housing prices are extremely low in comparison to more populated centres in Canada) to justify the constant interruptions at home, and the demands associated with having to go out and show houses on weekends and nights.

Many women talked painfully about losing their skills, their interests and their confidence, after spending many years at home. Many women who move to Cranbrook for their husbands to take employment, have had specialized jobs and skills of their own. These women were interior decorators, upholsterers, graphic and commercial artists, medical laboratory technicians and zoologists. However Cranbrook is a small enough place that employment in these fields is hard to come by, or completely unavailable. Now they work in retail stores, fast food restaurants, have in-home day cares or sometimes, after experiencing unemployment for lengthy periods, they have lost the confidence to pursue employment altogether. 'Joan', a newly married young woman, had arrived from the city with an Honours Bachelor's Degree in Zoology. She spent over a year collecting unemployment insurance while searching for an adequate job. She worked for a short time at the College as a laboratory assistant, something she was overeducated for. Then, for another short time she worked as a chair-side assistant in a dental office. 'I hate the work and I'm going to quit. It's a terrible place. It's a small office and we have to punch in and out on a time clock. There's no trust there. I'm always on "pins and needles" because of it.' A friend had tried to convince her to try substitute teaching for a while, but she does not want to teach. She wants a job like the laboratory job she had left to come here. Her husband tries to be supportive and currently they are trying to find jobs in a city because Cranbrook can not offer 'Joan' meaningful employment and she is losing her confidence. Problems face all women who leave their own jobs because of spousal career moves; but they are rendered even more difficult by the limited labour market of country towns.

With others it was leisure interests or simply the habit of conversing with other adults that had been allowed to atrophy. Some women talked at length about the difficulties of trying to recover their self-esteem in middle and older age. 'Ariel' spoke of her abandonment by her husband after a 30-year marriage. She had spent the last 30 years looking after her husband and their many children, who had since grown up and moved away. When he left her, she had to summon all her courage just to come to the Women's Centre to meet other women. She did not know how to drive (her husband had always done that), and so to start with she was afraid to apply for any job for fear of it being too far away from where she lived to walk (Cranbrook has no public transportation system). Then, she would have to rely on someone else to drive her and she did not want to be an inconvenience. As well, she felt she had no skills to offer in any kind of paid employment. She talked of giving for so many years to her husband and children that she felt there was now nothing left of herself.

We have already alluded to how the ideology of familism obscures the different lived experiences of different family members, and one of the poignant things about 'Ellen's' story, described above, was that other family members had no appreciation of what had happened in their family, or of why she was unhappy now. She had had to find other women in order to find understanding of what she was going through; and it should be noted that one of the 'normal' effects of familism is to isolate women from other women. 'I'm a "usee" . . . and my life suffers . . . personal and family, because I'm trying to please everybody.' Said 'Ellen', who after years of giving everything she had to her family, had suffered some depressive episodes and had subsequently been labelled by a local doctor as 'manic depressive'. He promptly prescribed sedatives. Her sense of self-esteem dropped so much that she rarely went out of the house, afraid she might see someone who knew her. She is married to a local official. She could not bear to deal with the gossip about her and so she stopped socializing completely. She felt helpless and shortly after the interview, left her family in Cranbrook to stay with her mother in the city. Again, there are aspects of Arid's and Ellen's stories that could happen anywhere; but there are also features of small town life that can make it even harder to 'get started' again.

The group discussions at the Cranbrook Women's Centre that concluded the research brought out repeatedly how familism constructs expectations and self- expectations that many women find difficult to deal with. 'Anne' an older woman who had raised a daughter on her own and who then worked as a home support care worker for mothers in financial need, put it this way'. . . I find that to say to someone, "I don't want to do that", is to say that I don't love them'.

Holly, angry about the complete lack of sympathy for her needs that her family showed her, said, 'Leisure is anything that I can do where I don't have someone to nag at me to do it. To be able to accomplish something without always being interrupted. That is the most frustrating thing about my life. I will have time to start things but never to finish them. I'm always having to stop what I'm doing and look after somebody else's needs, and I don't feel that others do that for me'. Yet despite comments like these, many women continued to feel ambivalent about reserving time for self, and had an extended discussion of leisure as 'selfish time' that echoed some of Henderson's findings (1990). This raised issues we shall return to in our final remarks.

We want to conclude our discussion of the research, however, by pointing to several other barriers to women's happiness that were identified in Cranbrook, barriers that are not unique to Cranbrook but are characteristic of many small towns in the Canadian north and west, and perhaps to hinterland or peripheral communities elsewhere. The first of these is transiency. Many towns in the Canadian north are relatively new (indeed Cranbrook is older than most), and have economies that rise and fall with the construction of pulp mills and the opening or closing of mines or oil extraction facilities. The men who work in these industries are mostly skilled workers and technical or management personnel, and they move from place to place with the availability of work (see National Film Board of Canada film 'Boomer'). In a patriarchal society, this means that women and families follow men to strange communities and leave behind not only extended families but successive sets of friends. Such families are by no means the only ones to be uprooted and relocated. However they may have to move repeatedly, and unless the husbands are management personnel, their moves will not be eased by relocation allowances. Many of these towns are also a long way from anywhere, and Canadian winter conditions make isolation very real. Most of the women in the study had come to Cranbrook because of their husband's work, and many referred to the difficulties of making and keeping friends, when families were always coming and leaving. When it is also very difficult for women to get work, and therefore to meet people on their own, they become even more dependent on husbands and family relationships.

We have already indicated that jobs are an issue, but a few further comments are warranted. Job opportunities for women are especially problematic in places like this. The resource industries remain overwhelmingly male, and in the absence of a more diversified economy, women are ghettoized into low paying service jobs, with little security or prospects. 'Karen', a young single working-class woman, one of the few in the study who had grown up in Cranbrook, said:
Whey my class graduated from the high school here, you either went to work at McDonald's or K. Mart, or you left town. It's still the same, there's more places now but they're all the same.
Opportunities for professional women and for office work are marginally better in Cranbrook than in some other resource towns because of the community college. However, years of a right-wing government in the province now mean that many of these jobs are part-time and casual, too. Real estate sales, a lucrative option for many women like 'Natalie' in urban Canadian centres like Vancouver, is barely worth the trouble in Cranbrook. In general, then, even poorer job opportunities for women than those in urban areas further reinforce women's dependency and isolation. Wealthier women like 'Nancy' are more able to travel to Lethbridge to see the ballet or go on a shopping excursion to Spokane, or simply to afford babysitters to watch the children while they go off to play tennis or golf with friends. For those less fortunate, none of these activities are options and they have a difficult time just getting to and from the grocery store without transportation.

Women's isolation is also sharpened, Djao and Ng (1987) suggest, by the design of these resource towns like 'suburbs in the bush'. Sprawling communities of single family dwellings, often on several acres of land but without connecting sidewalks let alone public transit, typically make getting about difficult, especially in winter. In towns like Cranbrook, most shopping is concentrated in highway malls that presume the use of a private car. Unless families can afford two cars, though, husbands often take the family car to mines or mills that are typically out of town, while wives are left at home. 'I spend a lot of time with the children, it can get a bit lonely', said one mother who was living in Cranbrook for a year while her husband was on a teaching exchange. He took the car to work, leaving her with an infant and a toddler to take care of. Another older woman ('Ariel') could not walk the distances to potential places of employment. For single parents and other poorer women who are without cars, shopping is particularly difficult, often requiring taxis to get home. Many women in the study supported Djao and Ng's (1987) suggestion that the organization of shopping in malls rather than neighbourhoods also makes networking among women all the more difficult. However given the sprawl of these communities for their relatively small populations, neighbourhood shops cannot be economically viable.

The other way of addressing this problem of course, would be public transport, and indeed transit services could make a big difference to the isolation experienced by many Cranbrook women. Jobs, shopping, meeting with friends, and generally doing things on their own, all would become a lot more realistic, and hence easier to imagine. Yet transit, like daycare facilities, is regarded by the local council as a 'frill'. Two factors, arguably, are involved here. One of these is the Chamber of Commerce's dominance of the town council and indeed all public institutions. This means a 'ratepayer mentality', in which keeping the taxes down is much more important than the provision of services (see also Rayside, 1989, on small town Ontario). What this also illustrates, however, is how routinely men in politics make decisions that affect women, without any real understanding of how these decisions affect them, or of the differences that these services could make in women's lives (Deem, 1987).

This male perspective on what is necessary and what is a frill is obvious in recreational provision. The major facility is the ice arena, which was described by several of the women as great for husbands and children, but offering little or nothing to women other than watching the males in the family play hockey. It is nonetheless typical of hinterland Canadian towns that the only public recreation facility is an arena, which serves as the focal point of 'community' life (Heald and Blight, 1987). This has not changed, indeed, since Lucas' (1971) study. Then, a woman is quoted as remarking'. . . My observation of small towns was that they were much better for boys than for girls. Boys, through sports and so on, often got attached to the community. Girls had to get out'. (Lucas, 1976, p. 350). The discussion sessions at the end of the Cranbrook study clearly indicate that the Kinsmen/Rotary rhetoric of small-town community spirit, and the 'compulsory enthusiasm' for local sports and festivals (which include, in Cranbrook, a beauty pageant in celebration of a historic male military figure) is something that not a few women detest. The power of service clubs in small town life, and the subordination of women and women's interests within the structure of service clubs, are also notable features of Dempsey's (1990) account of small town Australia.

Finally, there is the politics of being different in a small town. Rayside (1989) has described how the political process of many small Canadian towns is still dominated by small business people who form a tight elite, involving most of the town's likely employers in circles of friendship. In such a context, people who complain are easily labelled as 'disturbers', so that demands for more services, or for grants to organizations like women's centres, or indeed any politics that challenges the patriarchal Chamber of Commerce consensus, can render individuals vulnerable. Collective action can help to reduce these risks, but in a small town, challenging established traditions (like the beauty pageant) or dominant values remains problematic: '. . . it is easier to fight openly and adamantly for a political cause when your adversaries are strangers' and more difficult when they are neighbours or prospective employers (Rayside, 1989, p. 113; see also Lucas, 1971). In small towns:
Because everyone knows so much about everyone else, people learn to try to control what it is others will know . . . While it is true that many women have experienced such isolation over the centuries, it is also true that in larger centres it is often a matter of finding a different group of friends. For us, that group may live a hundred miles away.' (Heald and Blight, 1987, p. 108-9, describing Northern Ontario).
For Cranbrook residents, it is often several hundred miles away. In Cranbrook, even association with the Women's Centre carried with it certain negative stereotypes, given the familist atmosphere that was the dominant culture of the town. 'Cathy' a regular client of the Centre said '. . . I usually try to take a different route here (the centre) every day. You know I stay off the main streets as much as I can and I stick to the backstreets. That way maybe people don't notice where I'm going.' These comments and numerous others such as battered wives' tales of public hostility toward them, suggest that the norms of familism are so powerful here as to make life difficult for those who do not or cannot conform. In these circumstances, the existence of support networks is both more precarious and more necessary; and indeed many of the women said that the support and understanding they had received through the Women's Centre had made a significant difference in their lives. This has become an important policy issue in Canada, since the recent Federal budget severely curtailed grant aid to women's centres.

Concluding remarks

This study of women's leisure in a hinterland town raises, in our view, two distinct kinds of issues. The first and most general surrounds the meanings of leisure. On the one hand, the study showed very clearly that the standard 'malestream' meanings of leisure, as free time and especially freedom from obligation to others, simply were not relevant to the experiences of most adult women who had care- giving responsibilities. Not only did they almost never experience the kinds of freedom that leisure typically connotes, but having found some of their happiest and most fulfilling moments in the sharing and facilitating of pleasure, they spoke with two voices about the very idea of 'freedom'. In one voice, many women said that what made leisure meaningful for them was precisely the shared good times that made friendship and family real and happy experiences rather than empty words. This tends to support Bella's reconceptualization of leisure as 'relationality'.

However, many women (and often the same ones) also said that they needed more time and space to develop their own selves. They felt that relationships were the enduring fabric of their lives, and that enjoying these relationships was a central dimension of their understanding of leisure. But they were insistent on needing more opportunity to develop themselves, and they were acutely aware that for women to gain these opportunities on any scale will require that men take relationality and nurturing more seriously. 'Relationality' contains an important insight that is missing in traditional meanings of leisure. However, what the women in the study repeatedly emphasized was a need for a better balance, both in their own lives and in the distribution of caring work. In the absence of a more equal sharing of the work and pleasures of caring, 'relationality' does not address the barriers to women's leisure.

The second set of issues concerns the extent to which the barriers that were raised by the women interviewed for the study are worse in small towns and rural areas. At one level, it is clear that even the constraints we described as particular to Cranbrook are really products of the power of patriarchy - our account of the difficulties of being different, for example, or of the effects of patriarchal thinking on community design and services. Likewise the ideology of familism, and the facts of poorer job opportunities for women are by no means confined to hinterland communities. At the same time, the evidence of this study confirms findings by others (Luxton, 1980; Djao and Ng, 1987; Dempsey, 1990) that these constraints which limit women's opportunities everywhere can be felt more acutely in small town and hinterland communities. The study, like that of Rayside (1989), also points to the dominance of business men in small town life, and to the difficulties of challenging their view of what politics is about. Public facilities being fewer, they are more likely to be limited to what businessmen think is necessary and important to 'community life'. Leisure provision, in particular, is limited by ideas about 'family leisure', and is often further limited when men believe that access to woods and lakes and snow is part of the town's 'healthy lifestyle'.

In these communities, women's needs as women are dismissed even more easily than they are in more urban centres, and women who challenge traditional norms and ideas can find themselves even more vulnerable and isolated. Emotional isolation is heightened here by physical distance from friends, and from the women's support organizations that exist in larger centres. In feminist discussions about the intersection of gender with class, race and sexual orientation it is now widely accepted that though '. . . there are oppressions common to all women, there are very real differences in the ways oppression is lived'. (Heald and Blight, 1987, p. 102). These authors suggest that there are oppressions that are especially powerful for women in rural and isolated communities, and that these have been overlooked in many discussions. This study, like those of Dempsey (1990) and Henderson (1990), underlines the importance of bringing them into focus.


Bella, L. (1987) An exploration of the work women do to produce and reproduce family leisure. Unpublished paper presented at Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women Conference. Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Bella, L. (1989) Women and leisure: beyond androcentrism, in Understanding Leisure and Recreation, edited by T. Burton and E. Jackson, Philadelphia: Venture Publishing, (pp. 15 1-79).
Cerullo, M. and Ewen, P. (1984) The American family goes camping: gender, family and the politics of space, Antipode, 16, 35-45.
Cheal, D. (1987) Showing them you love them: gift giving and the dialectic of intimacy, Sociological Review, 35, 150-69.
Code, L. (1987) The tyranny of stereotypes, in Women: Isolation and Bonding, edited by K. Storrie, Toronto: Methuen, (pp. 195-209).
Code, L. (1988) Feminist theory, in Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, edited by S. Burt et al., Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, (pp. 18-49).
Deem, R. (1986) All Work and No Play? The Sociology of Women and Leisure. Milton Keynes: Open University.
Deem, R. (1987) The politics of women's leisure, in Sport, Leisure and Social Relations, edited by J. Home et al., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, (pp. 208-28).
Dempsey, K. (1990) Women's life and leisure in an Australian rural community, Leisure Studies, 9, 35-44.
Djao, A. and Ng, R. (1987) Structured isolation: immigrant women in Saskatchewan, in Women: Isolation and Bonding, edited by K. Storrie, Toronto: Methuen, (pp. 141-58).
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Heald, S. and Blight, M. (1987) Susanna Moodie revisited: roughing it in 1986, in Women: Isolation and Bonding, edited by K. Storrie, Toronto: Methuen, (pp. 101-12).
Henderson, K. (1990) An oral life history perspective on the containers in which American farm women experienced leisure, Leisure Studies, 9, 121-33.
Hunter, P.L. (1989) Women, leisure and a hinterland community, MA thesis, Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Alberta.
Lenskyj, H. (1988) Measured time: women, sport and leisure, Leisure Studies, 7, 233-40.
Lucas, R. (1971) Minetown, Militown, Railtown: Life in Canadian Communities of Single Industry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Lucas, R. (1976) Sports and recreation in communities of single industry, in Canadian Sports: Sociological Perspectives, edited by R. Gruneau and J. Albinson, Toronto: Addison-Wesley, (pp. 329-54).
Luxton, M. (1980) More Than a Labour of Love: Three Generations of Women's Work in the Home. Toronto: Women's Press.
Luxton, M. (1987) Thinking about the future, in Family Matters: Sociology and Contemporary Canadian Families, edited by K. Anderson, Toronto: Methuen, (pp. 237-60).
Pogrebin, L.C. (1987) Among Friends. New York: McGraw Hill.
Rayside, D. (1989) Small town fragmentation and the politics of community, Journal of Canadian Studies, 24, 103-20.
Rubin, L. (1976) Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family. New York: Basic Books.
Talbot, M. (1989) Family diversity: women, physical activity, and family life. Unpublished paper presented at XIth Congress of International Association of P.E. and Sport for Girls and Women, 'Better Family Life Through P.E. and Sport'. Bali, Indonesia.

Back to Instructor Gibbs' home page

Business and Social Sciences home page

spacing image Foothill College Addressline and link spacing image