Women's Pages: Reconfiguring Canadian Women in Print Culture
- Dean J. Irvine (Author)
Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Janice Fiamengo (Author)
The Woman's Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cecily Devereux
The recovery and reassessment of women writers in early Canada is a work that Lorraine McMullen (in Re[Dis]covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers) suggests had only just begun at the end of the twentieth century. Two decades of research in this area have produced such important and valuable studies of women in Canadian culture as Misao Dean’s Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction (1998) and Jennifer Henderson’s Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada (2003). Janice Fiamengo’s The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada and Dean Irvine’s Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956 have added significantly to these works and to study in this area. Aligned in their interest in locating women writers working in periodical print culture and in analyzing women’s negotiation of professional and public spheres and, crucially, of language, these two studies together address the critical and historical absence of women from the record, in Fiamengo’s case, of women in journalism and public speaking from the 1870s to the second decade of the twentieth century, and, in Irvine’s case, of women from little-magazine cultures from the First World War to mid-century. Irvine’s focus is on the ways in which women have been overlooked in the representation of a literary and cultural scene where the study shows them to have been vital as writers and editors; Fiamengo’s is on the ways in which women emerge into and shape writing and speaking professions from which they had been largely excluded. Fiamengo’s study is primarily concerned with women as producers of social texts in the popular press, Irvine’s with women’s literary writing. The two studies nonetheless share an impetus to provide a reassessment of women writers that is not “simply” a matter of recovery. Both studies undertake less, as Irvine puts it, to unearth an “alternative tradition” of women writers than to trace an “oppositional tradition” characterized by a desire for agency and for the meaningful change of the conditions of both labour and representation.
The Women’s Page considers the rhetorical practices of six women working and writing in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. While noting many other women working in Canadian periodicals—and appealing to other scholars to attend to their work—this study focuses on Agnes Maule Machar, Sara Jeannette Duncan, E. Pauline Johnson, Kit Coleman, Flora MacDonald Denison, and Nellie L. McClung. Each of the six chapters of the book attends carefully to one woman, closely analyzing her negotiation of language and construction of herself as a professional in a field of public writing or speaking. While providing detailed summaries of each of the six, the book also demonstrates how these women can be understood collectively to represent the movement of women into a public sphere and how, then, the public sphere can be understood to have been transformed by the ways in which women writers and speakers made space for themselves in it. “By making it possible,” Fiamengo suggests, “for ordinary readers to think of consulting a woman for medical advice, theological explanation, political theory, or literary judgment, the[se women] significantly broadened the parameters of women’s sphere and heightened the authority of women’s viewpoints.” This study is compelling in its assembling of an archive of early Canadian women’s work in public writing and speaking and in its balanced and lucid account of women as professional writers negotiating complicated and resistant structures of politics and ideology.
Like The Woman’s Page, Editing Modernity engages in a work of recovery and revision. Undertaking “a reconfiguration of critical and literary-historical perspectives on the relationships among poetics, gender, and little-magazine production that inform women’s participation in modernist literary cultures in Canada,” Editing Modernity significantly replaces women such as Anne Marriott, Dorothy Livesay, Flora MacDonald Denison, Miriam Waddington, and P.K. Page in the Canadian little-magazine scene. While these writers are well-known and have not been overlooked in Canadian literary history, this study suggests that, without a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of their work in the production of literary magazines, these writers cannot be well understood. One of the great strengths of Editing Modernity is its meshing of the record of women’s print histories with critical readings of their poems. Irvine posits—and functionalizes—a practice of reading that is situated in the recovered record of women’s work to produce the terms and the vehicles for their writing, and that demonstrates how extensively this work informs their writing.
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MLA: Devereux, Cecily. Women's Pages: Reconfiguring Canadian Women in Print Culture. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 130 - 131)
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