Women in Western Canada
- Catherine A. Cavanaugh (Editor) and Randi R. Warne (Editor)
Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women's History. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo
Feminist historical scholarship has changed significantly over the past two decades, moving from an emphasis on heroines battling patriarchal oppression to an awareness of class and race conflicts between women, individuals’ diverse responses to their circumstances, and the myriad locations of power and resistance. The result, in the best feminist work, is research that attends to the importance of gender as one category of meaning intersecting with many other variables, including race, ethnicity, and class but also age, ability, health, marital status, religious affiliation, educational background, and family context. Often this work is archival, interdisciplinary, and influenced by an eclectic mix of theoretical approaches. Such is the case with the majority of essays in Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women’s History.
In their excellent introduction to the volume, editors Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne provide a judicious overview of developments in historical scholarship and define their emphasis on diversity of subjects and approaches. The ongoing need, they assert, is for "all kinds of stories to be told and for many kinds of analyses to be conducted." Their collection focuses on the Canadian West, combining the prairie provinces with British Columbia to stress the continuities of women’s settler experiences in these provinces, which underwent periods of rapid growth due to immigration at approximately the same time and were marked by ethnic and cultural diversity.
Although most of the essays focus on the lives of newcomer women, the impact of settlement on Aboriginal women’s lives is also considered. Sarah Carter demonstrates that the idea of Native women’s licentiousness was promoted as a direct response to allegations, by Aboriginal people and opposition politicians, of Indian agents and NWMP officers’ sexual abuse of these women. Her analysis of House of Commons records makes this a fascinating contribution to scholarship on images of Indian women. Consulting diaries and letters of settler women, Nanci Langford contributes a well-written and heart-wrenching analysis of the childbirth experiences of immigrant women in Alberta and Saskatchewan at a time when very few health services were available to them.
In a piece that makes an excellent companion article to Langford’s, Beverly Boutilier examines how medical professionals undermined the power of a national women’s organization (the National Council of the Women of Canada) to address prairie women’s health concerns. Reviewing the records of the NCWC meetings, Boutilier traces the defeat of an initiative to create a corps of midwives to assist prairie women. Articles by Nancy Pagh, Cavanaugh and Frieda Klippenstein are also notable for their accessibility, clarity, and new insights while Sherry Edmunds- Flett and Frances Swyripa have done valuable archival research.
Occasionally, the essays reveal the conceptual limitations that can result when a single category such as gender is taken to be the primary determiner of meaning in all women’s lives. An otherwise informative article by Sheila McManus on the work arrangements and political struggles of Alberta farm women is at times weakened by an exclusive focus on gender norms. McManus reads women’s attempts to transform tiny wooden shacks into comfortable and beautiful family living spaces as evidence of an insidious gender ideal. That women were expected—and themselves desired—to care for domestic interiors is hardly a startling feminist revelation, and in this instance it diverts attention from potentially more interesting avenues of inquiry, such as the actual details of house management under such difficult frontier circumstances.
In another example, Myra Rutherdale is so focused on gender that her discussion of male and female missionaries in the North West consistently neglects or dismisses the significance of religious faith in her subjects’ lives. In one instance, she quotes a missionary describing how his wife’s exemplary Christian death brought about the spiritual conversions of many Native people present at her deathbed. He wrote that "her beautiful and tender words, and patient endurance of agony . . . drew more souls to Jesus than ever." The thinly-veiled contempt with which Rutherdale comments on this passage ("Ridley was using the hyperbole commonly adopted in missionary obituaries, but it appears that he believed that in the theatre of Jane Ridley’s death, souls were saved") reveals the inadequacy of secular feminism to explore the multi- faceted intersections of gender, faith, and self-sacrifice so central to missionaries’ self- understanding.
In contrast, one of the factors that makes Klippenstein’s essay on Mennonite domestic servants so astute is her recognition that her subjects’ experiences "fit uncomfortably into familiar, contemporary [feminist] categories," making it difficult to define them as protectors or exploiters, agents or victims. Klippenstein’s conclusion articulates a salutary warning against presentist judgements and an apt outline of the ongoing challenge confronting feminist historians: "As the religious and self-abasing elements of their discourse becomes [sic] embarrassing and even incomprehensible to their own children and grandchildren, we risk projecting onto them our contemporary values and ideologies. But by actively preserving their stories, perhaps we can learn to listen to and understand these voices on their own terms." Telling Tales makes a solid contribution to this endeavour.
- Perfect Cree by Margery Fee
Books reviewed: Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
- Taking Soundings by Eve D'Aeth
Books reviewed: Fearless Warriors by Drew Hayden Taylor, Echoing Silence: Essays on Artic Narrative by John Moss, and Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Between the Images by Peter Geller
Books reviewed: I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People by Arthur J. Ray
- Exhibitions of Diversity by David Watmough
Books reviewed: Myself Through Others by David Watmough and Queer CanLit: Canadian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) Literature in English: An Exhibition by Maureen FitzGerald, Donald W. McLeod, and Scott Rayter
- Candid Eyes by Mark Harris
Books reviewed: Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries by Jim Leach and Jeannette Sloniowski and Hiding the Audience: Viewing Arts & Arts Institutions on the Prairies by Frances W. Kaye
MLA: Fiamengo, Janice. Women in Western Canada. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 110 - 111)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.