The way women see themselves

Ann Finlayson January 7 1985

The way women see themselves

Ann Finlayson January 7 1985

The way women see themselves


Ann Finlayson

Gisèle Beauchemin and Peggy Steacy are 4,000 km, a generation and several ideological light years apart. At 31, Beauchemin, a mother of two, manages a busy household, leads an active social life—and works long and often irregular hours as administrative director of a successful children’s theatre in Beloeil, Que. Her job, she says, is vital to her own and her family’s well-being, and, like many Canadian women, she works not only because she needs the money but also for her personal fulfilment. Two-thirds of the way across the continent in Surrey, B.C., 58-year-old Peggy Steacy also leads a busy and rewarding life. But she devotes most of her energies to her husband, Charles, her children and grandchildren—and to shoring up the traditional family unit against the onslaught of social change.

That gap between what the two women represent—one a homemaker, the other in the job market—is one of the most significant findings of The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll. In general, the poll found that women who remain in the home demonstrated less self-esteem, less self-confidence, more pessimism about the future and more conservative social values, regardless of age, compared with working women. Indeed, the fact that a woman held a job proved to be one of the most important determinants of her attitudes and her views about herself and her society.

Sexuality: When women were asked whether they feel that Canadians’ attitudes on sexual matters have become more permissive or more conservative over the past 10 to 20 years, there was little disagreement: 84 per cent of working women and 76 per cent of nonworking women said that they believe that Canadians have become more permissive. But there the agreement ended. Forty-two per cent of the working women polled said that the change was an improvement. By comparison, only 34 per cent of nonworking women said that the change has been for the better.

The poll also revealed fundamental differences in the assessments that working and nonworking women made of their own sexuality. When asked whether they considered themselves very sexually active, somewhat sexually active, not very sexually active or not

sexually active at all, 32 per cent of nonworking women reported that they were not very sexually active or not sexually active at all. Only nine per cent described themselves as very sexually active. In contrast, only 20 per cent of working women said that they were not very sexually active or not active at all and 13 per cent said that they were very

sexually active. When asked whether they felt that they were much more, somewhat more, somewhat less or much less sexually active than the average Canadian, 41 per cent of nonworking women said that they were less or much less active. But among working women, 36 per cent said that they were less or much less active than the average Cana-

dian, and 36 per cent said they were less active.

On the sensitive question of how they rated their appearance, nonworking women again demonstrated less selfesteem than their working counterparts. When asked to rate their looks on a scale of 1 to 10, 58 per cent of working women rated themselves a 7 or higher. In contrast, only 43 per cent of nonworking women rated themselves that highly.

The poll also revealed that working women are more likely to be optimistic about the future, to be more satisfied with their lives and to be less worried about their families and their health. When asked to choose between better health, more income, a better love life or other improvements, 55 per cent of nonworking women, compared to 38 per cent of working women, said that their greatest hope for the future was for better health. Most working women chose more income. Forty-four per cent of women in the home, compared with only 35 per cent of working women, agreed with the statement “There are so many divorces today, in 10 or 15 years the whole idea of marriage as we know it may be forgotten.”

Guilty: And women who work at home were also more pessimistic about their current economic status and their prospects for the future. When they were asked, “How satisfied are you with your personal and economic situation right now?” 28 per cent said that they were dissatisfied. And when they were asked, “Thinking about the future, in general, would you say you are very optimistic, optimistic, pessimistic or very pessimistic about your personal economic prospects?” 25 per cent said that they were pessimistic. By comparison, 18 per cent of working women were dissatisfied with life and 16 per cent were pessimistic about the future.

That divergence of views did not suprise Peggy Steacy. Nor did nonworking women’s pessimism about themselves and their futures. “Our society makes women who choose to stay at home feel awful about themselves,” she said. Indeed, Steacy believes that it is working women who should feel guilty and uncomfortable. “Women who choose to work when they do not absolutely have to, have made a decision that threatens this society,” she added. “They have decided that they are more important than their families.”

Active in her Surrey, B.C., provincial Socred party constituency association and the Anglican church which she and her husband, Charles, attend regularly, Steacy is a tireless volunteer for causes in which she believes. She serves as president of the B.C. branch of Real

Women, a national lobby organization for nonworking women’s rights, “because it represents women who feel that traditional values are under attack in Canadian society.” The 20,000-member organization is growing rapidly, said Steacy, because “women are fed up with being told that they should be out there

working to fulfil themselves. I get dozens of letters that say, ‘Thank heavens there are other people out there who understand what a worthwhile job I am doing at home.’ ”

But for Gisèle Beauchemin, a rewarding job meant the difference between being “a painfully timid and troubled” young woman and an accomplished

working wife and mother who is “enthusiastic and open to life.” Married at 19, Beauchemin describes herself frankly as “still married, despite several very difficult years.” With two sons, Guillaume, 7, and Maxime, 5, she is the managing director of l’Arrière Scène, a children’s theatre in Beloeil, a small

community 25 km from Montreal where she and her husband, Guy, a set designer, grew up. “I work for many reasons,” she said. “It is not possible financially for us unless we both work. But if it were, I would still do it. I love the challenge. And I cannot stay at home all of the time. It would be no good—for me or for my family.” That is a common reac-

tion among the survey’s respondents.

The poll indicates that two-thirds of all Canadian women with full-time jobs work primarily because they need the income—exactly the same percentage as men. But, argued Steacy, many women who believe that they must work—for money or for self-fulfilment—are deluding themselves: “Many women do have to work,” she said, “and they have my sympathy. But for the others, buying a house right away or taking a trip to Hawaii are necessary expenditures. It is all a matter of priorities.”

Stress: Her greatest concern is for the children of working mothers, said Steacy, who also has two sons, Robert, 32, and Kenneth, 29, a daughter,

Deborah, 25, and three grandchildren. “When a mother thinks only of herself and gives up being home and being a positive influence on her children’s lives, you cannot say that she is doing anything to improve her family’s lot or our lot as Canadians,” she said.

But Beauchemin declared: “It is sometimes difficult for the children when the theatre is very busy and I am under stress. But other difficulties can come when a woman stays at home.

Now I am more open and happy. This is better for the children. I am certain of it.”

Once a week Beauchemin visits her parents’ home in Beloeil while her children are in school.

But she said that she feels closer to her husband’s mother, who also worked outside the home and as a result understands her better. “My own mother,” she said, “is not so interested in what I am doing, and I do not feel that we have so much in common.”

For Peggy Steacy, those attitudes are reprehensible. “It distresses me,” she said, “that families do not seem to do anything together anymore. My children learned early that getting to know their grandparents well is an experience well worth having. My greatest hope is that I will have turned out to be exactly like my mother.”

Steacy blames the feminist movement for many of the problems of women who work in the home. She said feminists

have made them feel “like second-class citizens who have to look like hags just because they stay at home. It only takes a few minutes to make yourself look as pretty as you can.” She added, “It just might solve the problem of straying husbands too.” But Beauchemin insisted that women who stay at home, particularly after their children are old enough to be in school, often do feel out of touch and unattractive. And, she added: “My relationship with my husband was not good when I was home all day. I needed





‘Over the past 10 to 20 years would you say £:: p' Canadians’attitudes on

_) sexual matters have be-

_ come far more permissive, somewhat more permissive, stayed about the same, somewhat more conservative or far more conservative?’




far more permissive

somewhat more permissive

somewhat more conservative

‘Would you say this change has been for the better or for the worse for Canadian society in general?’







to experience other people and he needed for me to have a more interesting life. And, of course, we needed the money too.”

Nomadic: The Maclean's/Decima Poll indicates that many nonworking women share that view. Forty-two per cent of nonworking women said that they would prefer to have a job, and of those half said that they would prefer to work full time. A further 26 per cent of women who work part-time said that they would prefer to work full time. But, Steacy argued, many of them do not realize the high price their families will pay if they enter the work force. “When a woman gives up being at home during

the day it cannot be good for her family,” she said. “There is no longer a relaxed atmosphere in the home, and life becomes more difficult for everyone.”

Steacy and her husband, a retired Canadian Forces pilot who is now a freelance writer, have lived in Surrey for five years. It is the longest period that they have lived in one place since they were married. Charles Steacy moved his family 34 times in 35 years —across Canada, to Europe and to the United States. But, said his wife, it was not their nomadic life that caused them to champion conservative values in a time of rapid social change. “Those came from our families and they made it possible for me to raise a family under sometimes very difficult conditions,” she declared.

Abortion: Through Real Women, Steacy now lobbies the federal government for better pensions and more tax deductipns for nonworking women. She also writes a newsletter for provincial MLAS and often appears on talk shows to discuss the organization’s other causes. Among them: opposition to abortion and pornography, and the conviction that much juvenile crime may be blamed on mothers who are not at home. She also works publicly to raise the morale of women who have chosen to stay at home.

Steacy is particularly concerned about abortion. “I take the view,” she said, “that a woman has all the choice in the world before conception. Afterward, though, she should be responsible for her behavior and to the life she has created.” Beauchemin shares that view. But she added: “There are many times that women become pregnant against their will. If I needed an abortion, if I did not want another child, of course I would get one.”

Repeatedly, on issues of crucial concern to them, Beauchemin and Steacy presented opposite points of view. But the two women agree on one basic principle: that women must fight for the right to lead their lives as they want to. What they cannot agree on is who, or what, is standing in their way.t;£>