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The position of Bahá'í women in the Canadian community and the extent to which they participated in teaching and administrative activities.
Presented to the North American Bahá'í History Conference, Wilmette, Illinois, 5-6 June 1994.

The Question of Gender in Canadian Baha'i History

by Will C. van den Hoonaard

Abstract: In view of the high proportion of women in the early Bahá'í community of Canada (1898-1948) the paper explores their status in the Bahá'í community from two angles: their general position in that community and the extent to which they participated in teaching and administrative activities.

        As our study generally covers the pre- World War II period, the position of women must be considered in the whole context of their social spheres, involving marital status, households, children, and participation in the Bahá'í community.

        In particular the paper examines the implications of the high proportion of never-married women in the Bahá'í community; the dominance of households headed by Bahá'í women; the high involvement of Bahá'í women in public events, topical coverage; participation in spiritual assemblies. In all area of Bahá'í expansion and administration women have carried the prepondering work. However, the contribution of women has never been fully recognized or documented.

        The paucity of Bahá'í biographies on women, the overwhelming overpresentation of obituaries of Bahá'í men in Bahá'í publications (despite the fact that 3/4 of Bahá'í communities were comprised of women), and the view that single women were in particular perceived to be problematic, are cited as some of the major obstacles in providing an accurate and fair history on the question of gender in Canadian Bahá'í history.


        I am sorry I cannot be with you in Wilmette. Instead, I welcome the opportunity to make a video presentation of my topic for today--"The Question of Gender in Canadian Bahá'í History." There is a clear advantage for you to see a video presentation--you can always fastforward! I wish to express my appreciation to Payman Tahershamsi in assisting me in making this video for the conference.

        For the first time in its 46-year history the Canadian Bahá'í community elected in 1994 more women than men to its National Spiritual Assembly. These new developments should not obscure the fact that women have always been at the forefront of all Bahá'í work.

        The foundation of our knowledge of the role and participation of women in the Bahá'í community comes from a variety of sources, some of which are problematic. First, there are hermeneutical problems. While the Persian Bahá'ís regarded Bahá'í teachings as a fait accompli by their very enunciation, the Western Bahá'ís saw such teachings as something to be achieved requiring a conscious effort at implementation.[1] Hence, accounts from Persian sources on the development of the equality of men and women differ markedly from those rendered by Western adherents.

        Second, the everyday historical text generates an uneven portrait of the contributions of women and men in the Bahá'í community. For example, it is difficult to rely on obituary articles and notices as a means of finding out more about Bahá'í women. Deceased men were almost seven times more likely to be noted in a full article in issues of Canadian Bahá'í News than women, who tended to receive only a notice of name and place of death.[2] Moreover, there is a paucity of biographies on both women and men. The lack of information is particularly felt when one considers the high proportion of women in the Bahá'í community between 1921 and 1947, which varied from 66% to 71% (see Table 1).

                                TABLE 1

Percentage of Women in the Canadian Bahá'í Community, 1921-1947
1921 1931 1941 1947 % women 71 70 66 68 N=all Bahá'ís 42 60 159 254 Source: van den Hoonard (1992a); all figures are rounded.

        Third, historic accounts may regard the large number of single women in the Bahá'í community as problematic. One may be tempted to see their hesitancy to hold firesides in their apartments or homes as a hindrance to the growth and spread of the Bahá'í community. We are reluctant to address the question as to why somany single women were attracted to the Bahá'í Faith.

        Fourth, there is what I would call the Hellen Keller Syndrome. The syndrome speaks to our attempts to hold up exemplary people as models for all to follow. Not everyone can follow such a model. Besides, the model ignores the contribution that everyday people can make. We have a few "Hellen Kellers" in the Canadian Bahá'í community.

        Edith Magee, the first Canadian to declare on Canadian soil in 1898, became a prominent singer and played a major role in the development of the Bahá'í school at Green Acre, Maine. Rose Henderson, another early Bahá'í, is probably better known outside the Bahá'í community. As a "maternal suffragette," she advocated the establishment of pensions for mothers, took special interest in the welfare of children, and was responsible for establishing Canada's drug laws.

        May Maxwell is familiar to everyone in this conference room. As the "mother of Canada," Mrs. Maxwell become the most active and effective Bahá'í teacher in Canada--even to this day. Marion Jack, born along the Saint John River which you saw at the beginning of the videotape, was an outstanding pioneer, to be emulated by Bahá'í pioneers everywhere. Finally, one finds Lorol Schopflocher whose own contribution to the development of the Bahá'í community consisted of travels around the world.

        Finally, there are not enough female Bahá'í historians or social scientists. At least 60-70% of people gathered in this room should be women if Bahá'í studies must reflect the demographic reality of our community.

        Some of us may already have formed an impression of a typical Bahá'í in the early 1940s. The Canadian Bahá'í community had a high proportion of women and many single people. If Bahá'ís were married, they tended to be childless. Initially attracting people from the upper class, the Bahá'í community seems to have later settled on lower middle-class members. The Bahá'í community was also an urban community. With such impressions in mind, one could characterize a typical adherent as a single woman living in a big city, of Protestant background, who lists her occupation as telephone operator.

        In terms of marital status, the high proportion of never-married women is noticeable in Table 2. Except for 1931, 8% to 16% more women than men were never married. It seems to have been more difficult for married women to join a new religion than married men, whose place and activities in the world were more independent of family life.

                                TABLE 2

Percentage of Never-Married Women and Men in the Canadian Bahá'í Community, 1921-1947
Women Men Average Difference (W minus M) 1921 33 25 31 +8 1931 19 22 20 -3 1941 40 24 35 +16 1947 31 20 28 +11 Source: van den Hoonard (1992a); all figures are rounded.
        The high proportion of single women in the Bahá'í community shaped the dynamics of expansion. As one early Bahá'í mentioned, there was a teaching culture of single women (Bond, 1993). The involvement of Bahá'í single women determined the kinds of activities they could sponsor or engage in. The popularity of public meetings, rather than meetings in homes, in the 1930s and 1940s might be explained as a response to the need for a neutral venue for single Bahá'í women to carry out Bahá'í teaching work. Single Bahá'í women were also in a better position to pioneer and spread their new religion to localities across Canada.

        Table 3 provides an overview of the percentage of men and women who moved in Canada, in 1941, by marital status. By 1941, 78 Bahá'ís had moved, or 49% of the total Bahá'í population. Table 2 shows that proportionally more never-married women (64.5%) moved than never-married men (38.5%). Of the ever-married women, only 39.2% decided to move, while 58.5% of their male counterparts moved. The very high proportion of single women who moved is the important point here.

                       TABLE 3

         Percentage of Bahá'ís who Have Moved
           by Sex and Marital Status, 1941

                         Men               Women

Never married             38.5               64.5
Ever married              58.5               39.2

       Total              53.7               46.7
       (N)                (29 out of 54)     (49 out of 105) 

Source: van den Hoonaard (1992a)

        While the total percentage of men (53.7%) who moved is somewhat higher than women (46.7%), as shown in Table 3, it is striking to see how proportionally more never-married women (64.5%) moved to elsewhere in Canada than never-married men (38.5%). However, the proportion (58.5%) of ever-married men (which include those who are separated, divorced, or widowed) is much higher than is the case for ever-married women (39.2%) It should be noted that few ever-married men or women had Bahá'í spouses.

        Married Bahá'í women with a non-Bahá'í spouse must have had a more difficult time. The interviewees confirmed that married Bahá'í women were often limited in their full participation in Bahá'í activities, for it was not uncommon for their non-Bahá'í spouses to frown on their interest and involvement in the Bahá'í Faith. At best, their non-Bahá'í spouses might allow them to participate in Bahá'í activities as long as these activities did not interfere with the household. This situation meant that many Bahá'í women were not able to host the Nineteen-Day Feast in their homes and have an opportunity to offer hospitality to their Bahá'í friends. At worst, the non-Bahá'í husband might outrightly forbid his spouse's involvement with the Bahá'ís.

        The participation of households in Bahá'í activities is examined (in Table 4). Between 1931 and 1947, the percentage of households with one Bahá'í in the extended family fluctuated between 56% and 77%. This category not only included never-married Bahá'ís, but also married Bahá'ís who were the only members of their family to be a Bahá'í.

        Further down the scale one found households with two Bahá'ís, which included couples and sometimes a brother and sister, or two sisters. They varied from 14% to 26% of all Bahá'í households.

        Finally, Table 4 shows households with more than two members who were Bahá'ís. Although they tended to typically represent a set of parents and offspring, they did sometimes

                                TABLE 4

               Size of households with Bahá'ís, 1921-1947 (in %)

                            1921        1931      1941      1947 
Households with:

1 Bahá'í                    56.0        70.7      76.7      63.6

2 Bahá'ís                   20.0        17.1      14.2      26.3

More than 2 Bahá'ís         24.0        12.2      9.2       10.2

             Totals         100.0       100.0     100.0     100.0     
                            (N=25)      (N=41)    (N-120)   (N=118)

Source: van den Hoonaard (1992a)

include a mother and her daughters, or a mother and son and her sisters. One might also find a grandparent (usually the grandmother), and her offspring and their children. The percentage of such more-than-one generation households varied from 9% to 24%, although usually closer to 10%.

        The structure of Bahá'í households created a particular limitation on how the Bahá'í Faith could spread. Because single-Bahá'í households were largely comprised of women, the Bahá'í Faith spread more easily among other single women. The preponderance of Bahá'í sister-sister households, as opposed to Bahá'í brother-brother households tended to also skew the Bahá'í teaching work towards the recruitment of women.

        Where did children fit into the picture? With a few exceptions the Bahá'í community was adult in its orientation. There were only a handful of women, and apparently no men, interested in teaching children, and it was uncommon for a Bahá'í couple to teach the Bahá'í Faith to their offspring. Early members took the Bahá'í idea of the need to "investigate truth independently" so seriously that a number felt that it was only proper for their children to learn about the Bahá'í Faith after the age of 15. Most children were thus not integrated into the community at all.

                               TABLE 5
            Children in the Canadian Bahá'í Community

                             1921      1931    1941    1947     

No. of children              20        44      86      145

% of which became Bahá'í     25.0      40.9    43.0    40.7

Source: van den Hoonaard (1992a)     

        Despite the fact that Table 5 indicates that approximately 40% of children became Bahá'ís, the percentage is probably lower. Since the Bahá'í community was not a social community, Bahá'ís were often quite unaware of the marital, occupational, and religious backgrounds of fellow-believers. Therefore, in recalling the attributes of fellow-adherents, interviewees might have been able to recall only those families where all or some of the children became Bahá'ís. A conservative estimate would be that only one-quarter of the children eventually became Bahá'ís.

        The number of times that men and women participated in informal and formal means of spreading the Bahá'í message could be used as an indicator of the equality of men and women. If equality prevailed, there would have been no differences between these two methods, i.e., women would have been as likely to be given as much an opportunity to teach the Bahá'í Faith through such formal avenues as public meetings as men. Between April 1937 and April 1948, there were 202 recorded informal and formal presentations given by 66 travelling teachers.[3] Of these, 36 women (54.5%) gave 86 presentations (42.6%).

        A study of the topics given by women and men at such public functions might, however, reveal a gender difference. Table 6 provides a list of all known topics offered by travelling Bahá'í teachers, both women and men. As Table 6 clearly shows, there does not appear to have been any intrinsic differences between the topics presented by women and men, although Bahá'í publications were more likely to report topics given by women.

                              TABLE 6

      Topics Presented by Women and Men Travelling Teachers,
                         1937-1948: A Sample

             Women                      Men

     New World Order                 Bahá'í Citizenship
     Feast of Ridvan                 The New Age
     The Reign of Law                Post-War Objectives
     Abolition of Prejudice          National Relations
     Man's Approach to God           World Unity
     Revelation of Christ in         World Order is the Goal
          the Modern Age             The Way to True Happiness
     Bahá'í Education
     Patterns of a New World      
     A World Commonwealth

        A number of other factors emerged in the process of forming systematic teaching campaigns in Canada. Quite unintentionally, several processes of teaching were at work. First, the Canadian Bahá'í community experienced a movement of Bahá'í men from eastern Canada (primarily married businessmen from Montreal and Toronto) who managed in their travels to find time to speak at Bahá'í gatherings (see graph 1). These individuals included many of the foremost Canadian Bahá'ís, namely Siegfried Schopflocher (industrialist), John Robarts (insurance agent), Rowland Estall (financial adviser), Emeric Sala (importer), Allan Raynor (insurance salesman), Craig Weaver (insurance salesman), and George Spendlove (curator). With perhaps the exception of Spendlove, all spoke on either Bahá'í administration or world-order related topics.

        Second, we can discern a significant trend of American Bahá'í married or single women's travelling to Canada. Their topics tended to include the "spiritual" teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, rather than its administrative principles. These women included Sylvia King, Marzieh Carpenter, Mabel Ives, and Mary Barton.

        Third, the campaigns east of Montreal were characterized by the fact that they were conducted by couples, such as Howard and Mabel Ives, Doris and Willard McKay, Emeric and Rosemary Sala, John and Amine deMille, and by Canadian, not American, women, who included Rosemary Sala, Winnifred Harvey , Lorol Schopflocher, Elizabeth Cowles, and Grace Geary.[4] Only one man, Ernest V. Harrison, undertook alone to visit the Maritimes from Montreal (Bahá'í News, Oct. 1941: 7-8). The following graph provides a sketch of such teaching movements in Canada:

                                GRAPH 1

              The Movement of Bahá'í Teachers in Canada,

Vancouver    _              CANADA      Montreal                
           women             UNITED STATES


        This process determined, to a large extent, the character of Bahá'í communities in various regions across Canada. In eastern Canada (east of Montreal) the Bahá'í teaching work was largely conducted by couples and projects were of longer duration. Indeed, it was not unusual for couples to settle down in the Atlantic provinces. New believers in eastern Canada came to depend heavily on these couples for their instruction and deepening of their understanding of the Bahá'í Faith.

        The situation west of Montreal and Toronto, was entirely different. The communities of Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria received considerable cross-fertilization of Bahá'í ideas emanating from American women (topics on Bahá'í spirituality) and from Canadian men (topics on Bahá'í administration and world order). The cross-fertilization endowed Bahá'í communities with a deeper understanding of the new religion.

        While there are no differences between the number and kinds of presentations given by women and men, Bahá'í women were at the forefront of settling new areas. Women were somewhat more likely to be the first adherents in any given locality between 1937 and 1948 as Table 7 shows:

                                TABLE 7

             Pioneering and First Bahá'ís, by Sex,
                            1937-1948 (in %)

                     Women          Men           Total

1st to pioneer        66.7           33.3          100.0  (N=51)

1st to declare        52.8           47.2          100.0  (N=36)

Source: Appendix D; van den Hoonaard, 1992a.

        Two-thirds of those who pioneered to open new localities to the Bahá'í Faith were women, and clearly more than half of the first new declarants were women as well.

        In the area of Bahá'í administration, the situation was different. As Stockman (1985) notes, the early North American Bahá'í community perceived women as vital to the teaching of the Bahá'í Faith, while it left administrative matters to men--although in such communities as Kenosha, Wisconsin, the women filled half of the positions of administrative authority (Stockman, 1985: 112). Our examination of two Canadian communities, Vancouver and Hamilton, from 1937 to 1948, indicates a growing participation of women in Bahá'í administration, as shown in Table 7.

        Table 8 breaks the 1937-1947 period into two smaller ones, namely 1937-1941 (five years) and 1942-1947 (six years). During the five-year period, there are a total of forty-five vacancies for the overall membership of the Spiritual Assembly (nine each year), and fifty-four for the six-year period. The percentages indicate the proportion of women elected to assemblies in Vancouver and Hamilton. In the case of Vancouver, the percentage of women members increased from 55.6% to 84.4%. For Hamilton, there was almost a two-percent jump from 72.2% to 74.1% In these cities, the proportion of elected women members either exceeds or roughly represents the proportion of female Bahá'ís in the whole community.

                                TABLE 8

         Participation of Women in Bahá'í Administration
                         1937-1947 (in %)

                                    1937-1941+     1942-1947++

Overall membership on LSA* of:
     Vancouver                          55.6           84.4     
     Hamilton                           72.2           74.1

Officers on LSA of:
     Vancouver                          45.0           70.4
     Hamilton                           83.3           66.7     

As Chair of LSA in:
     Vancouver                          20.0           100.0 
     Hamilton                           100.0          33.3      

As Secretary of LSA in:
     Vancouver                          100.0          100.0
     Hamilton                           100.0          100.0

* = local Spiritual Assembly
+ = For Hamilton, only 1940 and 1941.
++= For Hamilton, only 1942, 1946, and 1947.

Sources: Minutes of the Vancouver and Hamilton Spiritual

        If being an officer of the Spiritual Assembly indicates a position of special responsibility, the proportion of women officers in Vancouver and Hamilton is generally lower than for overall Assembly membership. Over the period, in Vancouver, the proportion of women increased from 45% to 70.4%, while the reverse can be observed for Hamilton, namely from 83.3% to 66.7% Over the same period, the proportion of women chairs on the Vancouver Spiritual Assembly increased from 20% to 100%, while in Hamilton it decreased from 100% to 33.3% Following the overall pattern of society, the position of secretary was, however, invariably occupied by a woman. In general, Table 8 confirms the active and more-than-equal participation of women in Bahá'í administrative affairs.[5]


        In 1921, Bahá'í membership was characterized by an Anglo-Saxon Protestant overlay, composed of both upper and managerial classes. By 1947, the membership saw a decline in its Anglo-Saxon Protestant makeup, largely based on lower-middle class membership. The outlook, however, remained Protestant and provided the necessary organizational and temperamental tools for expansion.

        It was not only Protestantism which remained a constant characteristic of Bahá'í membership. The disproportionate participation of women persisted as well. The women, many of whom were single, were responsible for propagating their new beliefs to other women. Both women and men provided equal participation in the informal and formal means of spreading the Bahá'í Faith. Women were particularly prominent between 1937 and 1947 when the Bahá'ís were encouraged to settle and open new locales to the Bahá'í Faith. Understandably, the first response in these locales to the new faith came from women.

        The Bahá'í community was still a childless one, both in fact and in orientation. Events were organized around adults, and married couples with children tended to isolate the children from the Bahá'í community. The sense of childlessness was heightened by the presence of a disproportionate number of single women. It was also not uncommon to find only one Bahá'í partner in a marriage, increasing the sense of religious "singleness." It was a subculture of public meetings and home firesides oriented towards adults. The only variation found among communities across Canada was their ability to find their own niche of success or failure, depending upon the particular methods used to propagate the Bahá'í Faith.

Women and Religious Minorities

        The high percentage of women members is commonly found among other minority religious groups too (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 237-38, 413-17), not just among Bahá'ís. Stark and Bainbridge offer the view that "relative deprivation" (1985: 413), and the "opportunity to become leaders" (1985: 414) which mainstream, patriarchal religious organizations do not offer. The social isolation of women in traditional families appears to be a third factor which accounts for the overrecruitment of women to minority religious organizations (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985: 417). Stark and Bainbridge's final observation that "successful movements appear not to over-recruit females" (1985: 416), would lead one to think that the lack of vigorous growth of the Canadian Bahá'í Community might be related to the underrecruitment of men. It would be of considerable interest to pursue this dimension during the Bahá'í Faith's period of growth, both in Canada and elsewhere where growth has been substantial.


Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge (1985) The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

van den Hoonaard, Will. C. (1992a) "Membership List of Early Canadian Bahá'ís, 1895- 1948" 145 pp.

________ (1993) The Bahá'ís in Canada: A Social History, 1898-1948. Book ms. (under review by publisher).


[1] For a fascinating discussion of the divergent perspectives between the Persian and Western Bahá'ís, the reader is referred to Margit Warburg's study of the Danish Bahá'í community (Warburg, 1990: 10).

[2] There was no Canadian Bahá'í News in existence before the formation of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís if Canada in April 1948. However, since the names of many pre-1948 believers might be expected to appear in Canadian Bahá'í News later on, the author found the following statistical evidence of the underreporting of deceased women in full-scale articles (see Table 9):

                                TABLE 9

             References to Women and Men in Obituaries
           in "Canadian Bahá'í News" May 1950- April 1963
                               (in %)

                                 Women          Men

Articles (large or brief)        4.9            32.1

Only names of believer           95.1           67.9

          Totals:                100.0           100.0
                                 (N = 41)        (N = 28)

[3] The most relevant sources for this information include annual reports of such communities as Vancouver and Winnipeg, Bahá'í News, newspapers, Laura Davis Papers, local Bahá'í histories of Halifax, Canadian Bahá'í News, Ottawa Bahá'í Archives, Canadian Teaching Committee Bulletins, and the "News Bulletin" of the Maritime Teaching Committee.

[4] Bahá'í News, Febr. 1940: 6; March 1941: 7; Oct. 1941: 7-8; July 1942: 2.

[5] A statistical profile of membership on the nine-member national spiritual assembly. Between 1948 and 1960, three of the nine members were women, with the exception of 1950, 1951, and 1953 when four women were elected. Between 1961 and 1963, there were only two women, and in 1964 and 1965, only one. In 1966, there were, once again, two women, but from 1967 to 1972, there were no women at all. Only one woman was elected in 1973, but two women between 1974 and 1981. Female membership went up again to three, in 1982. Between 1983 and 1990, only two women served on this body, with the exception of 1986, when only one was elected. In 1991, it went up to three women, and in 1992 and 1993, there were four women on the National Spiritual Assembly (compiled from Canadian Bahá'í News). In 1994, five women were elected.

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