Mavis Gallant’s article “Women Who Worry Toronto” was published in February of 1949 in the Montreal Standard Magazine. It was a profile of the women imprisoned in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females located in Toronto. Although Gallant recapitulates both condemnatory and apologist arguments regarding the conditions of the reformatory and the treatment of its female prison population, she, in this article, shies away from an obvious political stance on the existence of the reformatory itself. Yet, Gallant’s feminism is evident in the manner in which she portrays a complex and humanizing portrait of the women imprisoned in the reformatory.
Beginning in the 1930s the governance of women’s morality and sexuality became increasingly tied up with the Canadian legal system; women were ostensibly jailed for their failure to adhere to the strict moral standards. For instance, one woman, Velma Demerson, was jailed at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory -and subsequently subject to eugenics testing while in custody- in 1939 for engaging in an interracial relationship with her Chinese lover, Harry Yip, and having a biracial child out of wedlock (Fleet). Demerson is just one example of the many women who were jailed for their transgressions of the sexual and moral codes of conduct under the guise of being incorrigible (Fleet).
According to Dr. Glasbeek, author of Moral Regulation and Governance in Canada: History, Context and Critical Issues, “‘Incorrigible’ meant that if a woman was considered defiant of authority she could be brought to court with no evidence required” (Merhi). Although Gallant’s definition of the “incorrigibles” is less inculpatory of the legal system than Dr. Glasbeek’s, she does hint at the problematic catch-all nature of the “incorrigible” classification, wryly remarking that “sometimes it is difficult to say if the fault is a character weakness or simply an unbreakable will” (Gallant 10).
While Gallant sketches for readers the grueling daily chores that the women are made to do and also the Reformatory’s role in encouraging academic study and certification for the women, for the most part, she does not seem to come down on one side or the other of this debate swirling around the Reformatory’s treatment of its prison population. Perhaps Gallant’s effacement of the inequitable legal and political forces that led to the imprisonment of some of the Mercer women could be viewed as unfeminist, but it is important to consider this article’s paratextual context. The ads and articles (pictured below in Figure 1) featured in the edition of the Montreal Standard in which this piece was published are geared towards married women. Specifically, house-making, middle-class women who conform to traditional sexual mores and gender roles.
Figure 1: Ads and articles featured in the February 29, 1949 issue of the Montreal Standard
That Gallant opts to foreground the imperfect humanity of the Mercer women, whose perceived sexual and moral conduct run counter to the class of women who are typically represented and addressed in the Montreal Standard, is a revolutionary and feminist act in and of itself . She points out that these women break down into “human types…and even the types are deceptive” (Gallant 10). To be sure, this is not the most glowing portrayal but it makes obvious the complicated character of these women.
More importantly, Gallant roots their “warp in character” (10) to “families who worked against them instead of with them” (10). This acts as an appeal to readers to view the women as products of their “broken homes” (Gallant 10) instead of arch stereotypes, and signals Gallant’s sympathetic view of these women.
Gallant also explores the potentialities of life outside the prison from the view of the women. One woman didn’t want to leave because she had a better environment and opportunity for passing her senior matriculation exams and becoming a nurse while inside the reformatory. With this portrait Gallant makes a pointed critique of the lack of community and societal support for previously jailed women, asserting that “maybe there was something wrong with a prison which didn’t entirely ‘reform’ its inmates, but then there was also something wrong with employers who wouldn’t give them jobs when they got out” (Gallant 8). Once again, Gallant emphasizes the past, present, and future of these women–forcing readers to temporally locate the Mercer women within their own life stories and understand them as not merely criminals but as human beings who have to navigate an unsupportive society.
During a time period in which women were judged by harsh standards, Gallant’s Montreal Standard piece is feminist precisely because she does not hold an unsympathetic group of women–female prisoners–to such unyielding standards and instead adopts a nonjudgmental and humanizing approach towards profiling them.
Fleet, Darren. “Lost Canadian Velma Demerson’s tragic story of love and loss”. Vancouver Observer, 1 March. 2011. Web. Retrieved from http://www.vancouverobserver.com/world/canada/2011/02/28/lost-canadian-velma-demersons-tragic-story-love-and-loss?page=1
Gallant, Mavis. “Women Who Worry Toronto”. Montreal Standard Magazine, 29 Feb. 1949: 8, 10. Print.
Merhi, Dalia. “For Their Own Good”. The Dominion, 11 July. 2012. Web. Retrieved from http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/4526
“Nostalgia Tripping: the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women”. BlogTO, 25 September. 2010. Image retrieved from http://www.blogto.com/city/2010/09/nostalgia_tripping_the_andrew_mercer_reformatory_for_women/
Micklethwaite, Frank. “Mercer Reformatory”. Library and Archives Canada. Image retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=000003592998