By Violet Phillips

Frances Backhouse is a journalist and nonfiction author who has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria and teaches journalism and creative nonfiction in various institutes. Her favorite topic is Canadian history.[1]

Her book, Women of the Klondike, is about the many unconventional women represented in the Klondike gold rush. When the gold rush started in the 1890s, women were rarely associated with anything outside the home which included husbands, children and homemaking. They were also expected to spend a lot of time improving their appearances and keeping house.

Some colleges in the Bay Area, including my college, Mills, began to accept women, but in less progressive areas, women weren’t expected to have any aspirations except cooking, marriage, motherhood and general homemaking. Even theaters and bicycles were exclusively associated with men. [1]

Once gold was discovered in the Sacramento valley , California became a much more developed state, with thousands of people migrating out of curiosity over what kinds of adventures may lay in store. The new culture also drew attention to the poor treatment of women and created greater sexual freedom for those seeking alternative lifestyles.

Women would typically migrate to Klondike with male relatives, but some migrated by themselves. The Klondike era may have been time that women occupied as many roles as men did. Some arrived with husbands, some with children, some with siblings, some were with lovers, some became prostitutes, some worked in entertainment, some had jobs doing laundry, some had cooking jobs, some worked at boarding houses.

Slowly, professional endevours that almost no women had worked in before, such as journalism, newspaper editing and publishing, metal testing, mining, saloon and shopkeeping, bookselling and hat-making began to include more women. But, the Klondike community still followed a lot of the same rules as the Victorian community: most girls weren’t allowed to attend dances, balls, plays, concerts, operas or picnics until they were 16-18, and women were still responsible for things like homecare and providing food.

The dress style of the day expected of women was also a traditional Victorian style, which was very stiff and uncomfortable. [2] The lifestyle was particularly hard on Native American and Chinese women. They would often be forced into prostitution, coerced into sexual situations with men or raped. [3]

Even though women weren’t allowed to own bars or dance halls, some women would visit dance halls and sexually please men. They were shamed greatly. Women also began to prefer short skirts so they could hike more conveniently, which later inspired bloomers (See Amelia Bloomer). [4] Men, in general, still maintained patriarchal dominance. Single women were constantly purposed to and gender roles were active and prescribed within the existing culture.

Frances Backhouse’s book exploring these revolutionary women was a finalist in the 1996 vancity book prize for best British Columbian book on women’s issues, and a runner-up for the 1996 Edna Steable award for creative nonfiction. She is considered a strong influence on environmental media [5], but she also should be respected for her portrayal of women in history. Women of the Klondike is part of the Museum of Motherhood’s permanent library collection.

This piece was submitted as part of Violet Phillips participation with the Museum of Motherhood internship program.


[1] Frances backhouse. A world of words. Online. Accessed April 5, 2021.

[2]Classroom. American women in the 1890s. Laura leddy Taylor. Online. Accessed April 4, 2021.

[3]feminizing the history of the gold rush.” Glenda Riley. Western historical quarterly. Vol. 30, no. 4. Oxford university press. Online. Accessed April 5, 2021.

[4] https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/amelia-bloomer

[50 women of the 1898 Alaska-Klondike gold rush. Sara bornstien. Senior history thesis 2009. Online. Accessed April 5, 2021.

[6] Carolyn swayze literary agency Ltd. online. Accessed april 5, 2021

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