US History in “Respectable Citizens” by Lara Campbell Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer


The 2008 economic crisis experienced in most industrialized countries like the United States rekindled some interest in historic economic events. There is a renowned interest in the Great Depression, with many writers featuring the economic history of this era. The Great Depression, which stroke Canada, not only affected the country economically and politically, but also socially in the family unit. There are many economic history books in the market, but most writers have concentrated on the political and economic history of the Ontarian Great Depression, leaving out the equally important social aspect.

Lara Campbell in her book “Respectable Citizens: gender, family, and employment in Ontario’s Great Depression” examines the events that took place during the Great Depression from a social point of view. Campbell takes a wider approach by looking at people’s experiences, government interventions, and events that eventually led Canada out of the Great Depression. To achieve this, Campbell organizes her book around two intertwined themes: “a detailed examination of the material difficulties and survival strategies of Ontario families is combined with an analysis of the way that individual protest and collective action helped to redefine the meanings of welfare and citizenship” (Campbell, pp. 6). This essay, therefore, is an evaluation of Lara Campbell’s Respectable Citizens.

Thesis Statement

Respectable Citizens takes a social approach to examine the darkest history of the Ontarian Great Depression. Campbell addresses human suffering, which manifests itself through massive unemployment figures, home evictions and humiliating relief policy. Apart from examining material difficulties, Lara Campbell also analyzes the role played by collective action in transforming Canada into a welfare state (pp. 6). In a series of five chapters, Campbell examines different concerns of human suffering, federal government unfair relief provision policy, and citizen’s struggle to redefine citizenship and welfare (Hughes, par. 3). The questions of “who”, “when”, “where”, “how” and “why” are adequately addressed in Campbell’s thesis.

In addressing “who” question, Campbell designed each gender aspect a whole chapter. In chapter one, Campbell examines the role of women as mothers doing their best to provide for their family through domestic labor, paid labor, and informal labor (Campbell, pp. 25-50). In chapter two, Campbell explores men’s experiences in the wake of rapid unemployment and economic hardship. Campbell also gives a whole chapter to children. Campbell also examines a different body outside gender, the government. Campbell demonstrates how federal government policy on relief provision was unfair and made life difficult for single mothers.

When reading Campbell’s book, the critical issues of “what” come out clear. Campbell’s book is about human suffering and she has managed to bring out the clear picture of her thesis through illustrations. Campbell examines social expectation of Canadian citizens as “respectable citizens” evaluating how this expectation pushed them to the extremes. Social expectations of women as “respectable citizens” pushed them even to prostitution just to be able to feed their families (pp. 46). Men’s frustrations as they failed to play their role as “respectable citizens” also come out clearly in Campbell’s work. “… men standing in relief lines or in soup kitchens, men protesting in the streets, and men riding the rods in search of work” (Campbell, pp. 57).

Campbell also uses illustrations to show how people came up with survival strategies during times of difficulties. Women came up with different domestic skills including recipes to provide for their families as mothers. Women focused on kitchen gardens and came up with their own preservation methods to preserve food and save on the family expenditure (Campbell, pp. 30).

Questions of “when”, “where” and “why” are also well addressed in this book. Campbell thesis focuses on the economic history of the Ontarian Great Depression. Through use of illustrations, Campbell thesis comes out clear as she intended to depict the Great Depression history in the 1930s. Besides, Campbell uses illustrations both from rural and urban experiences to emphasize to her readers that her book covers both divides.

Respectable Citizens examines human suffering because of massive unemployment attributed to the historic economic downfall in the 1930s in Canada. Campbell manages to help the reader answer the question “why” by analyzing people’s sufferings and survival mechanisms as well as how collective action shaped the history of Canada as a welfare state. Campbell also analyses the role played by the government in increasing human suffering. Campbell argues that high unemployment, the specter evictions and foreclosure threatened the status of both men and women as “respectable citizens” (pp. 116).

In summary, Lara Campbell was interested in the socio-economic implications of the Great Depression. A thesis she managed to address adequately by examining people’s experiences within the family structure. Her presentation of issues in themes brings out the clear picture of her thesis statement. One is able to understand the economic history in the Ontarian Great Depression and its social implications just by reading this book.


Respectable Citizens explores the ways in which gender, ethnicity and class shaped the struggles of men and women in the Great Depression (Hughes, par. 5). The book carries two lines of argument: first that in the name of family duties defined by their gender as “respectable citizens” and their strong belief in work ethics, Ontarians had to do everything possible to fulfill their duties including demanding services from the government.

Second, that social policy incorporated these considerations, as was the case of relief provisions. These arguments remain consistent in this book with a steady flow from one theme to the other. I personally like the way Campbell presents her arguments in the form of an introductory story before getting into detailed discussion of the issues. Even by reading the chapter introductions, one is able to get an idea about the chapter contents.

Campbell’s uses factual sources of information ranging from newspaper articles, premiers’ papers, memoirs, family and Juvenile court records, and oral histories to back her arguments in Respectable Citizens. For instance, Campbell refers to newspaper articles when highlighting issues of women and food (Campbell, pp. 27-28). When examining issues of “respectability” and domestic conflict arising from frustrations due to unemployment and home evictions, Campbell outlines a series of newspaper articles and memoirs to express people’s experiences. She also uses documented court records to emphasize the seriousness of issues.

Campbell herself evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of these sources in her introduction chapter to admit the possibility of bias in information she obtained. Newspaper stories may be fabricated, but personal memoirs are true stories of people’s experiences. Moreover, court records are true reflection of what happened in history and I give Campbell credit for the authority of her literature. Besides, Campbell backs her argument with factual data from previous surveys when discussing both issues of unemployment and homeownership and foreclosure (pp. 118-119).


Respectable Citizens takes a gendered approach to discuss events of the Great Depression. This book is comprehensive and looks at all aspects of the economic history of the Great Depression from gender point of view. Despite the fact that Campbell is a feminine writer, she takes a gendered approach and highlights the economic history in the Great Depression by examining both women and men sufferings in Ontario. Campbell presents her idea in a manner that is does not reflect her feminism. Many would argue that Respectable Citizens is more gender based thus compromising the most important political issues.

I, however, disagree. Campbell presents her work in a way that as you read it, you get a clear picture of the history of Canadian labor force, cultural values, survival strategies during economic hardships, government policies and how collective action led to the development of Canada as a welfare state. All these issues constitute a very important part of Canadian history that we cannot overlook.

Besides, Campbell uses both rural and urban experiences to illustrate her arguments thus making her work a comprehensive depiction of the Ontarian Great Depression.


Following the 2008 global economic depression, most authors have concentrated in recounting the economic history of the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939. Respectable Citizens offers a new insight into economic history of this era. Unlike many writers, Campbell examines the gendered dynamics of economic crisis in Ontario. Campbell presents her ideas in a fascinating manner that not only makes the reader understand the economic history of the Great Depression, but also reflect on gender issues surrounding economic dynamics.

Campbell’s illustration of how gender restricts women as family providers was fascinating; a role that meant women had to do everything to provide for their families as mothers. Yet, men still perceived women as stealing their jobs when women turn to paid employment just to provide for the family. Campbell’s account of human suffering, survival strategies and the power of collective action in shaping historic events surely adds new knowledge into the existing information about events of the 1930s. No one who wants to have a gendered picture of the Great Depression can afford to omit this book. I personally read the book and I felt like reading it repeatedly. The ideas are clear with illustrations to back them.

Respectable Citizens is really a resourceful book that is worth recommending to anyone who wants to understand economic history from a gendered point of view. We are used to reading history literature that highlights human struggle, but Campbell gave her work some flavor by digging deep into issues of gender economic dynamics. Besides, many history books are based on fiction. Campbell bases Respectable Citizens on real life experiences making her work authentic. Respectable Citizens helps the reader reflect on where we were almost a century ago and how far we have moved in redefining gender roles in the family. Respectable Citizens also emphasizes the importance of protecting the family unit. Read this book and you will never regret.

General writing style

I have read many history books, but Respectable Citizens caught my attention. Lara Campbell has written this book in an easy to understand manner. Her use of simple vocabulary makes her book readable even by students in lower grades. Campbell used simple English to write her book in a flowing format that is easy to read and understand. Anyone who finds this book complex must be poor in grammar.

Besides, Campbell presents her ideas in a narrative form making her book look more like a novel. Her introductory narration in every chapter makes this book interesting and the reader feels like reading deep into the chapter to find out more. Moreover, Campbell uses illustrations to emphasize her arguments. As the reader digests the information, a clear picture of history is drawn in the mind. Reading this book makes one feel part of the history even though it happened many years ago.

Campbell avoids the use of graphical illustrations in her book except for the cover page, which offers the reader a synopsis of the theme in the book. Many, especially readers who love picture illustrations, would perceive Respectable Citizens as boring. I, however, disagree with them. Even though Campbell’s ideas are represented in plain writing, she made use of topics to allow the reader digest the information in bits. Respectable Citizens is also a small book of approximately 300 pages that can be read within a short while. I hate reading long literature with no clear defined topics. Campbell really wanted to present her information in a manner that would be easy to digest. Respectable Citizens is a simple to read and understand book that looks more like a novel and is appealing to many readers.

Course Commentary

Our course covers Canadian economic history with a bias to business and labor history. The key focus is in the changing perceptions of business conduct, the varying fates of Canadian labor, the development of state roles and the implications of various historic events. Respectable Citizens takes a similar approach. While examining the economic history in Ontarian Great Depression, Campbell focuses on the varying fortunes of Canadian labor and how the Great Depression changed business conduct in Ontario. Unlike many countries who depended on slave trade and had low opinion for labor force, the real builders of Canada were its workers in staple industries. During the dark years of the Great depression, women had to evolve from being domestic workers to find some paid jobs in agricultural fields in order to take care of their families as mothers.

The same way, children had to find labor to supplement what their parents provided in the family. Reading Campbell’s book gives me more insight into Canadian labor history. Besides, Campbell gives some insight into how the economic history in the Great Depression shaped the development of state roles and the eventual implications of collective action in bringing change. Canada transformed into a welfare state where citizens are entitled to relief support. Besides, respectable citizens also highlight the changing nature of business as Campbell illustrates through trade in foodstuffs. Respectable Citizens is a-must-read book in this course. Read this book and you will find some important insights that are applicable in the course work.


Respectable Citizen is a well researched piece of literature that examines history from a gender point of view. Lara Campbell examines the economic history in the Ontarian Great Depression in a manner that makes her book interesting to the reader. Her arguments are clear and supported by factual data. After reading this book, I can now boldly state that Lara Campbell’s Respectable Citizens is a-must-read book in our course. The book is a summary of our course work. If you want to understand Canadian labor history, take some time a read this book. You will not regret it.

Works Cited

Campbell, Lara. Respectable Citizens: Gender, Family and Unemployment in Ontario’s Great Depression. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

Hughes, Karen D. Rev. of Respectable Citizens: Gender, family and Unemployment in Ontario’s Great Depression. Lara Campbell. Canadian Journal of Sociology 2010: Vol. 35 (4). Web.

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