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In “The Woman Question,” Stephen Leacock uses empty stereotypes that he cannot support with evidence to argue why women are unable to progress in society. He does not have any evidence because women have never been given the opportunity to prove or disprove these assumptions. Instead, he uses fear and humour to undermine the fight for women’s rights and the importance of suffrage. In “Munitions!,” author Jessie Sime rejects these stereotypes by demonstrating that when given the opportunity, women debunk these stereotypes entirely. Sime creates strong female characters and makes the argument that it is not the physical factory that represents liberation but rather the right to choose, in order to dismantle Leacock’s reasoning. Comparing these two works reveals that progress for women in society does not come from what women can and cannot do, but rather what they are given the opportunity to do.
Leacock uses a female caricature to perpetuate the stereotype of strong women as angry, irrational, annoying, unrelenting, and fearsome. He ridicules this caricature and her opinions, calling her “the Awful Woman” characterized by “screaming” and “howling” about Women’s Rights with “a hatchet in her hand, breaking glass” (Leacock 512). This nameless character categorized as the Awful Woman is immediately stripped of her individual identity. She does not have a name because she only serves the purpose of representing a stereotype. The descriptions of her screaming opinions illustrates women who fight for women’s rights as being angry, scary, and irrational. Leacock invokes fear of this woman and argues that “men of the modern age, living indoors and losing something of their ruder fibre, grew afraid of her…and the Awful Woman, —meddlesome, vociferous, intrusive, —came into her own” (512). His description incites fear of this woman and consequently, observing her as a universal representation, fear of all women who speak about Women’s Rights. His suggestion that she is intrusive and meddlesome shows his annoyance with this defiant woman. Furthermore, Leacock discredits all of her opinions using humour to ridicule her. She states that “when women have the vote…there will be no more war [because] the women will forbid it,” and Leacock “hop[es] that the Awful Woman [will] explain how war would be ended,” however she does not (510). Her incomplete argument portrays her as illogical and ridiculous. Her namelessness serves to make her a universal representation of women, suggesting that all women are illogical and ridiculous, as well. This stereotypical caricature represents a negative stereotype and perpetuates prejudice against women, which justifies male dominance. If all women are angry, irrational, annoying, unrelenting, and fearsome, then of course men must assert their dominance and power to keep order and stability. This prejudice assumes that women are incapable of being rational and calm and encourages the notion that as a result, women in power are something to be feared, which justifies the lack of opportunities available to them.
Sime undermines Leacock’s caricature of the Awful Woman by describing a wide range of different and unique women for which there is no uniform description. As Bertha Martin sits on the bus on her way to the factory, she notices “here and there… a pretty, young, flushed face, talking—talking…an older face, a face with knowledge of the world in it,” and a group of girls “loud, noisy, for ever talking — extraordinarily happy” (Sime 485). These women are described differently with no single stereotypical image able to categorize them all. The diversity of the women on the bus alone suggests the inadequacy of a single stereotype. The women on the bus are also not angry but “extraordinarily happy” (485). Leacock’s stereotype is now not only inadequate in describing the diverse group of women but also inaccurate. These women are giddy with happiness and enjoying their lighthearted conversation, which is completely dissimilar to the Awful Woman described in “The Woman Question.” Additionally, the repetition of the protagonists full name, “Bertha Martin,” throughout the narrative establishes an individual identity separate from social structures. Bertha is not defined by a husband with the prefix “Mrs.,” nor is she simplified to her last name, “Martin,” which the mistress of the house she previously works at calls her (486). Bertha is a unique individual who is not defined by her role in the home or her marital status. The effect of using her full name is a direct rejection of Leacock’s universal “Awful Woman.” Breaking down the stereotype and hoping to stop the prejudice, Sime disproves Leacock’s assumptions about women, making it difficult to justify male dominance and questions why women do not have the same opportunities as men if they are equally diverse and rational.
Another assumption Leacock makes about women is that they cannot work together towards a common goal. He states with assurance that “women could never be a team of anything,” because women are “too crooked” and “impossible to trust” (Leacock 511). Leacock uses this stereotype to justify why women could never pursue business as this field requires a lot of team work. However, he has no evidence to support his claim that women cannot work in teams. Ironically, when describing the Awful Woman’s opinions about war he ridicules her for not having any reasoning to support her claims — yet he cannot support this claim with evidence, either. The reason there is no evidence for Leacock’s statement is because there was never the opportunity for women to work together as a team to prove him wrong prior. Women were not given the chance to work in business, yet Leacock asserts male dominance by using an unsupportable stereotype to justify why they cannot.
In Sime’s “Munitions!,” the camaraderie between the working women on the bus provides a strong counter argument to Leacock. Bertha “look[ing] round at her companions” and her interactions with the other women disprove the assumption that women cannot work in teams (Sime 485). The diction in this sentence, specifically using the word companions and not coworkers or fellow citizens, evokes a sense of togetherness. There is no crookedness as Leacock suggests, or mistrust. On the contrary, there is friendship and support as “the eyes of the women [meet]…they smile at one another. Fellow co-workers — out in the world together!” (487). The eye contact between Bertha and the other woman on the bus is supportive and encouraging. There is a bond of unity between these women who are entering the workforce and banding together for this new and exciting stage in their lives. Sime proves through this unifying scene on the bus that women can work together and demonstrates that when given the chance, women are great coworkers and teammates. Once again, Sime is dismantling Leacock’s argument. He has no evidence or support for his claim, whereas Sime experienced the “social pressures faced by working class women” as a working woman in Montreal in the early twentieth century (Sugars 484). The reflection of her experiences in “Munitions!” denounces Leacock’s assumptions as the women work cohesively and support one another. Accepting that women can work in teams gives them access to the business world that Leacock argues they are incapable of entering. In pulling apart these stereotypes, justification for a male controlled business world falls apart. Without this justification, people can no longer deny women equal opportunity and the male-dominated society that Leacock tries to preserve breaks down.
Leacock argues that even if women get the vote, there is nothing they are able to change with it. He argues that “in and of itself, a vote is nothing,” and essentially the functionality of a ballot in the hands of a woman is futile because they will not bring about change with it (Leacock 513). He is minimizing the importance of suffrage because he does not believe that women, with the vote, can “throw everything open to women on the same terms as men” (512). Leacock argues that even if “all of the world’s work [was] open to women… they can’t do it” (513). His reasoning for why they cannot is simply: “the reasons why she can’t are so many… that it is not worth while to try to name them” (514). However, the reasons for why women “cannot” is essential to Leacock’s entire argument and yet he does not explain. Leacock only focuses on what he believes women can or cannot do and places stereotypes on them without supporting evidence to reinforce his beliefs. His argument in this case is not about the functionality of the vote, but rather the incapability of women to use it.
Comparing the vote to the factories in “Munitions!” shows how neither a ballot nor the physical factory represent liberty, but rather that liberty stems from the opportunity to choose. Leacock argues that the vote in and of itself is worthless. Sime, however, argues that the material thing, like the ballot or the factory, is not where women’s emancipation comes from. In her description of the factories as being “in noise and grime and wet,” “work[ing] the whole day long…no room to turn or breathe…no ample comfortable meal…hard work, long hours, discomfort, [and] strain,” Sime portrays the factories as a horrible place (Sime 489). It seems strange that women would leave the “comfortable” home setting for the factory, which is far more dirty and uncomfortable (486). Sime suggests through her gloomy description of the factory that it is not the factory itself that liberates women but rather the choice they are able to make to be in the factory that makes them truly free. Bertha is liberated because she is given the opportunity to make the decision between the “half-dead life” (490) behind her in the home and the “grimy, roughened, unrestrained…sense of broadening out” in her future (489). Sime and Leacock agree that neither the vote nor the factory liberate women. However, while Leacock argues that women should remain in their place in the home because their ability vote will change nothing, Sime refutes that the opportunity to vote and having the freedom to choose whether to stay at home or enter the workforce is liberating in and of itself.
Leacock’s arguments lack support and are ultimately baseless, rendering his argument weak against Sime’s rebuttals. Sime’s “Munitions!” breaks down the myths that Leacock perpetuates in “The Woman Question.” When closely examined, Leacock’s arguments are baseless as he lists unproven stereotypes, while Sime’s personal experiences as a working woman in Montreal gives credence to her proof against these stereotypes. The defining difference between the two texts lies in how Leacock and Sime define women’s emancipation. Leacock defines freedom by what women are capable of doing, like being rational and calm, working in teams, or making change with the vote. His prejudices are that women cannot do any of these things, and therefore their rightful place is in the home. This notion stifles women’s rights and the hope for women’s progression in society. Sime, however, argues that women’s liberation does not depend on what they are capable of doing, but rather whether or not they are given the choice to try and be capable of it. Therefore, freedom depends on opportunity and equity — not capability. “Munitions!” suggests that if women are given the chance, they can disprove all the stereotypes Leacock lists in “The Woman Question,” arguing for the true meaning of liberty for women.
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