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Manitoba History: Review: Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek (eds.), Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation

by Dianne Dodd
Parks Canada

Number 77, Winter 2015

Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek (eds.), Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation. Vancouver, Toronto, UBC Press, 2013, 302 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-2620-4, $34.95 (paperback)

Feminist History in Canada is a fine collection of essays that explores women, gender, work, and nation. It follows in the tradition of the 1985 collection, A Neglected Majority, edited by Susan Mann and Alison Prentice, which put Canadian women’s history on the academic map. As the field grew, more works followed, including Canadian Women: A History (1988); various editions of Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History; and the Clio Collective’s 1992 Quebec Women: A History. This latest addition to the scholarship, edited by Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek, emerged from a conference: “Edging Forward, Acting Up: Gender and Women’s History at the Cutting Edge of Scholarship and Social Action,” sponsored by the Canadian Committee on Women’s History/Comité canadien de l’histoire des femmes (CCWH-CCHF), an affiliate of the Canadian Historical Association. In the early ‘neglected majority’ days, feminist scholars were happy just to write women into the national story. Now, forty years after the founding of CCWH-CCHF, historians can assume, rather than assert, the importance of gender as a variable of analysis in the writing of history, and have incorporated new historiographic insights into the literature. The essays in this volume explore women’s work, professionalism, and activism; transnationalism, enriched by the growing feminist scholarship; critical race studies; and “the resurgence of interest in biography as a lens for understanding culture and society” (p. 4).

Although the editors felt the need to justify/explain, or apologize for, the inclusion of biography as a legitimate historical methodology (a nod to those who feel it lacks the illusive ‘critical perspective’), several biographical essays in this volume make important contributions to the historiography of women and gender. Adele Perry’s portrait of the marriage between James Douglas (first governor of British Columbia) and his Metis wife, Amelia Connolly, illuminates the intersections of race and gender in colonial society. Two of the essays also make creative use of a traditional biographical source: diaries. Gail Campbell uses them to critically examine the private lives of eight middle class men and women, finding that, while the two genders differed in their motives for diary-keeping and in their storytelling modes, they also shared much. Indeed, she concludes that the ideology of separate spheres obscures more than it illuminates, as the private and the public realms revealed through these diaries were anything but separate. Indeed, they were quite closely intertwined. Heidi MacDonald uses the diaries of three middle class women to analyze their decisions to marry, or not to marry, during the Great Depression.

Several of the essays explore transnationalism, one of the conference themes, while relying on biography. Perry argues that the multiple racial and gendered identities in the private and public lives of Douglas and Connolly cannot be contained within what would later become provincial or national boundaries (p. 12). Lorna McLean paints a biographical sketch of Julia Grace Wales, a Canadianborn peace activist who spent much of her life teaching in Wisconsin. She argues that Wales has been neglected because she does not fit neatly into one national story, as she moved across the Canadian and American borders and shifted identities to advance the cause of peace. Similarly, Karen Balcom looks at women’s international alliances in the field of child welfare during the interwar period, showing how they used them to advance their professional and activist agenda.

The interest in women’s work and professionalism, evident since the emergence of women’s history, remain a focus in the field. This is evident, for example, in Catherine Gidney’s examination of the conflicting messages received by early 20th century professional women at the University of Toronto, including deans of women, physicians, nurses, dieticians and fitness instructors. Hélène Charron traces the careers of men and women in the social work profession in at Laval University in Quebec. There, women became congregated in practical, people-oriented, communitybased positions while men took the more prestigious jobs in research and the growing social welfare bureaucracy. This coincided with the impact of the Quiet Revolution, which sidelined the women of religious orders who had formerly provided social work leadership, so that a distinct masculinization of the upper echelons of the field emerged.

At least two of the essays approach the question of ‘voice’ in relation to race, gender, and sexuality. Kristina Llewellyn notes that she was tempted to impose her own research goals on her subject, a Chinese-Canadian home economics teacher in postwar British Columbia. Llewellyn recognizes her own feelings of disappointment that Hazel Chong used feminine respectability to create a place for herself within Canadian class, gender, and racial hierarchies, and declined to discuss racism as a part of her life. Similarly, Donica Belisle, who used company newsletters to examine the work culture created by retail saleswomen, finds that women chose to dress attractively and pose seductively. Somewhat reluctantly, she asserts that feminists must accept women’s conventional pursuit of feminine beauty standards, which are rooted in a capitalist, patriarchal society, while stressing the importance of exploring the ways in which such standards exploit women (p. 155).

Some of the essays bring women’s history up to the latter half of the 20th century with explorations of third wave feminism. Catherine Charron, for example, explores women’s continuing efforts to turn traditional domestic work into paid labour outside of it. But it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and Charron notes that domestic servants still hold poorly paid, insecure jobs. Rose Fine-Meyer explores the unique role that the Ontario Women’s History Network (OWHN) played in promoting women’s history, particularly with school teachers. Indeed, OWHN created a link between academic/public historians and educators of the young, which resulted in feminist reforms to the educational curriculum. Ruby Heap reminds us that the battles for equality have not all been won, as women in engineering still strive to gain acceptance in a male-dominated profession. Anthony Hampton explores the leadership of women in recent constitutional battles, which took root around the women’s kitchen tables.

About the collection, I had only a few minor quibbles, such as the authors’ efforts to reference one another’s essays, which felt somewhat forced at times. Overall, the collection adds much to the field of women’s and gender history, and would be a useful addition to any reading list for graduate and undergraduate courses in women’s history, women’s studies, and related fields.

Page revised: 19 November 2015

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