Framing Women's History
- Sharon Anne Cook (Author), Lorna R. McLean (Author), and Kate O’Rourke (Author)
Framing Our Past: Canadian Women's History in the Twentieth Century. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Adele Perry (Author)
On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lindsey McMaster
Canadian women’s history is a lively field of studies where scholars are frequently challenging disciplinary boundaries. Framing Our Past, which represents significant archival research, cheerfully refuses to hierarchize the academic over the popular, while On the Edge of Empire positions race and gender relations at the very centre of historical inquiry.
In On the Edge of Empire, Adele Perry explores the ideological friction between mid-Victorian ideals and British Columbia’s turbulent social conditions. In the mid-nineteenth century, B.C.’s race and gender relations were influenced by demographic factors: white men far outnumbered white women , and mixed-race unions of white men with First Nations women were standard. The transformation of B.C. from a colonial outpost to a permanent settler society involved theconcerted efforts of reformers to replace a white male homosocial culture and mixed-race relationships with Victorian norms of upright middle-class masculinity and the respectable family. The imperialist impulse of reformers to clarify racial lines and segregate white and First Nations communities was troubled by the widespread existence of mixed-race unions and complex gender relations which defied easy classifications.
Part of the reformist impulse which Perry describes involved attempts to balance the gender ratio by encouraging the immigration of British women. It was hoped that these women, as symbols of Victorian respectability, would have an improving influence on the heterogeneous social scene of B.C. But the discrepancy between colonial rhetoric and the experience of female immigrants only further underscored B.C.’s liminal position in regard to traditional Victorian standards. Perry points out that despite the belief that white women were an inherently uplifting force for society, a series of institutions and reform efforts were designed to regulate them: girls’ schools, reform societies, and the rhetoric of protection for women all betrayed the deep anxiety that for women to exert a naturally improving influence on society, they would require vigilant supervision.
The book is extremely well researched, and Perry combines historical detail with a highly developed analysis of race and gender relations. Indeed, for Perry, understanding the management of race and gender is not merely a useful addition to the historical study of B.C. On the contrary it is utterly fundamental: "Notions and practices of manhood and womanhood were central to the twinned businesses of marginalizing Aboriginal people and designing and building a white society. To probe the role of gender in British Columbia’s colonial project is thus not to quibble with a minor historical matter. It is to reckon with the very process that put British Columbia on the edge of someone’s empire." The selections collected in Framing Our Past do not have the critical and analytical depth of Adele Perry’s work, but this project is much different. Drawing on archival sources from across the country, Framing Our Past brings to life a wide range of women’s experience in twentieth-century Canada. It is a large and attractive volume consisting of a carefully assembled collection of eighty-five written submissions and over two hundred images which together illustrate the diverse everyday lives of Canadian women during the last hundred years.
In creating this collection, the editors set out to appeal to a wide audience, both aca- demic and popular, part of their project being to challenge traditional divisions between academic and popular histories and to valorize connections between the ivory tower and the community. Their contributors are therefore varied. Many of them first-time authors, they include archivists, curators, students, and independent scholars in addition to recognized historians. This lends the volume a variety of tone and perspective that is refreshing, though occasionally I found myself craving a bit more analysis to complement the rich archival material.
The variety of subject matter is a great strength of the book. From dressmaking patterns to peace activism and from arts and crafts to wartime work, this volume demonstrates in detail the enormous diversity of women’s experience in the last century. The articles are organized into six categories, each with its own introduction to situate the contributions within a larger social and historical context. Veronica Strong-Boag introduces a section on "Living Women’s Lives" in which she comments on women’s distinctive cultural artifacts—textual documents, homemade objects, works of art—all of which lend concrete expression to the distinct cultural worlds of women’s everyday lives. The ensuing articles then take up more particular subjects such as the single woman artist, Inuit arts and crafts, and women’s spirituality. Alan Bruce McCullough introduces a section on women’s work, outlining the complexities and contradictions that surround women’s paid and unpaid labour. He notes that the decision by Statistics Canada in 1996 to include a survey of unpaid work indicates the increasing acceptance that many kinds of unpaid work done by women— like child-care, housework, and the building of community—are in fact essential tasks in need of new assessment. The articles that follow address topics such as domestic work, dressmaking, journalism, and wartime work, many of them exploring the issues of culture and identity that arise for women entering non-traditional fields.
The editors made a great effort to be inclusive in their selection of articles, but they admit that there are omissions; issues of women’s sexuality, for instance, are not addressed, an omission attributed to the recent scholarly development of this area, but still a noticeable absence. On the whole, though, the breadth of subject matter represented is remarkable and illustrates the variety of scholarship that exists in women’s archival research.
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MLA: McMaster, Lindsey. Framing Women's History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 162 - 164)
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