- Tamara Myers (Author)
Caught: Montreal's Modern Girls and the Law, 1869-1945. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- K.I. Press (Author)
Types of Canadian Women: Volume II. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Berkeley Kaite
Tamara Myers notes that girls’ delinquency has an “intimate nature.” As well, the coding of the female body as fluid has a long philosophical and cultural history. Myers goes a long way towards establishing how fears of feminine fluidity—movement especially—were encoded in Canadian law as well. One of the many interesting, if troubling, things one discovers in Caught is that the legal market for “feminine hygiene” emerged at the same time the commercial market for “feminine hygiene products” was taking hold (the early 1920s). Tamara Myers doesn’t mention this explicitly in her discussion of “mental hygiene” and the committees and institutes of the same name created to handle the problem of juvenile delinquency. While there were many suggested causes of, and solutions for, delinquency, one thing was clear: in the popular imagination, it was tenaciously linked to the female body. The “mental hygiene movement” thus referred to attempts to diagnose and clean up the behaviour of “wayward” girls. It was assumed there was a connection between “feeblemindedness” and, among others, gambling, drinking, vagrancy, sexual activity, pregnancy out of wedlock. Blood is, in fact, mentioned in Myers’ discussion of the legal, religious, and social conceptions of “immorality” in Montreal in the early 1900s. In perhaps the most compelling chapter in this richly documented and well written book, “‘Did you bleed?’ The Juvenile Court, Girls’ Bodies, and the Sexualization of Female Delinquency,” various case reports from the Montreal Juvenile Delinquents’ Court are studied to reveal how the “clean and virginal” girl was treated with more leniency than one who was deemed neither. Myers writes: “Marie Rose B., a fifteen year old, was accused of stealing two watches, a pair of glasses, and some cash … Dr. Amiot performed a gynecological examination. Although Marie Rose denied her role in the theft, she could not deny the physician’s findings that she was ‘deflowered’ and infected with venereal disease. When Judge Robillard interviewed Marie Rose he exhibited little interest in the stolen property and her denial of the charge. Rather, Robillard wanted to know the frequency with which she had sexual relations and the extent of her knowledge concerning the venereal disease.” Girls who reported seduction, rape and sexual coercion might be asked “Did you bleed?” in order to ascertain if they’d been “truly” raped. Blood is a metonym for fear, fascination, prurience, punishment, and sexual violence. Blood, and its regulation, also brings together women and their bodies as threatening interior space: gynecological exams were routinely administered to delinquent girls to determine their mental state.
And it is another kind of space—the city and its many and rapid changes wrought by urbanization, industrialization, immigration—that uses the female body as its foil. Several perceived threats to the French-Canadian patriarchal family, including the movement of young women out of the foyer and into paid work and the enticements of urban leisure pursuits, meant that the female body could be too easily seen as out of place, “ripe for trouble.” This body which refused to be contained became the site for the negotiation of protective services, surveillance, metaphoric and real boundaries, as well as the disciplines of medicine, psychology and sociology. Myers writes of la jeune fille moderne: “Parents and juvenile justice officials saw bodies that could not be constrained or contained, that left home for paid work, that swayed suggestively to modern music, and that were seemingly available for exploitation by men.”
Myers looks at les jeunes filles modernes in Montreal and situates their construction by and treatment in the juvenile justice system, itself a nexus of class, race, gender, culture, and national imagination. She begins with the inauguration of the Montreal Juvenile Delinquents’ Court in 1869 and walks through the Juvenile Delinquency Act, the interference from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions, and the practical gendered matters of the courts (among others). She concludes with a chapter on reform schools (the Girls’ Cottage Industrial School), the most interesting section of which notes its geography (set in nature to reinforce perception of women’s innate innocence and delicateness) and architecture (different cottages for those with venereal disease, those who were immoral but without disease, and those who were incorrigible). Here the interior space of the reform schools mimicked the imagined (defiled) interior spaces of these young women.
Myers is careful to document instances where young female delinquents weren’t just victims, or acted upon. These young women “suspended between freedom and dependence … with their wages … could be found in dance halls, moving-picture theatres, restaurants, even brothels, stealing themselves away from traditional sources of surveillance.” While this did allow their parents to resort to the courts “to bolster their waning authority,” it also served as a precursor to our secular confessional culture. When court officers asked girls about their sexual encounters, many would use the opportunity to talk of instances of incest, rape and seduction at the hands of family members. Myers also discusses riots and rebellions at reform schools. She notes these latter events contributed to “an era in which children and youth gained an unprecedented political presence, for better or worse.” Little has changed, Myers concludes, when current attitudes, reflected in media coverage, support the idea that adolescent daughters “still spark outrage and exasperation.” This idea is also found in current court sentences which justify violence against “wayward” girls.
K.I. Press’ Types of Canadian Women is an unorthodox collection of, one could say, wayward thoughts. It is a fictional, poetic, and whimsical embellishment of early twentieth-century photographs of Canadian women. Press’ aim is to tell the imagined background musings to these photos, the unofficial story, the suppressed material revealed only through its surface clues and Canadian contexts of geography, immigration, colonial history. The most explosive material Press gives voice to has to do with anger, sexual longing, and sexual abuse. Still, the many narratives Press imagines, from stories of working on fishing boats to nursing to writing, are a kind of discursive Dinner Party. All the possible stories are uncategorizable, and this is why they resonate. Unlike the unforgiving categories into which the young women in Caught were placed, the women’s lives here are recognized as full and unbound by real or symbolic law.
- Trois voix/voies féminines by Cynthia Lévesque
Books reviewed: La vie d'Éva Sénécal by Françoise Hamel-Beaudoin, Mémoires parallèles. Choix de poèmes by Paul Chamberland and Denise Desautels, and Le rire de l'eau by Nadine Ltaif
- Literature as History by E. D. Blodgett
Books reviewed: La Vie littéraire au Québec by Maurice Lemire and Denis Saint-Jacques
- Lecture dans les marges by Lucie Lequin
Books reviewed: Érudition et passion dans les lectures intimes by Manon Brunei and Contre-voix. Essais de critique au féminin by Lori Saint-Martin
- Communautés by Vincent Charles Lambert
Books reviewed: Acte de création by Paul Savoie and Le goût de l'autre by Guy Cloutier
- Writing Quebec by Gordon Bölling
Books reviewed: The Years of Fire: Charles the Bold, Volume 2 by Yves Beauchemin and Wayne Grady and The Hunting Ground by Linda Gaboriau and Lise Tremblay
MLA: Kaite, Berkeley. Feminine Hygiene. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 155 - 157)
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