Feminist History Reconsidered: Gender, Activism, and Equity in Canada

Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

Carstairs’ and Janovicek’s collection derives directly from the “Edging Forward, Acting Up” conference held at Simon Fraser University in 2010. Sponsored by the Canadian Committee on Women’s History/Comité canadien de l’histoire des femmes (CCWH – CCHF) and “built upon forty years of feminist scholarship,” the conference addressed the connections between feminist history, activism, and social policy, while also emphasizing the significance of a transnational feminist praxis. The thirteen pieces selected for this volume are duly imbued with contemporary feminist theorizing regarding the significance of intersectional historical analysis and transnational identities. The essays are loosely divided into four main categories: women’s work, biography, transnationalism, and activism.

A number of works in the collection make the gendered nature of employment their focus. Catherine Charron examines paid domestic labour in 1960s Quebec. Charron reveals that, despite increased numbers of female labourers, “women’s work” remained low wage and insecure. Donica Belisle is similarly emphatic about the sexism often inherent in economic structures. Employing department store newsletters as archival texts, Belisle reveals that, although women took pleasure from these newsletters—making decisions to dress in accordance with the overtly sexualized models—the pervasive objectification of the women in the letters makes apparent that they were valued for their appearance, rather than their skills.

Adele Perry’s opening essay is a combined biography of James Douglas, British Columbia’s first governor (a child of a mixed-marriage), and his Métis wife, Amelia. Perry’s retelling of Douglas’ and Amelia’s life stories is a lateral examination of the treatment of Indigenous women in the colonies, which highlights the subjective nature of colonial archives. Kristina Llewellyn’s piece, also primarily biographical, demonstrates the articles’ overarching attention to the importance of Critical Race Theory. Llewellyn examines the life and career of Hazel Chow, a postwar, British-Columbian home economics teacher, who constructed herself as a paradigm of white feminine “respectability” in order to further her position in a masculinist and racist society.

Multiple articles in the collection work to situate Canadian women’s lives within a transnational framework. Karen Balcom demonstrates the manner in which North American child welfare activists used the League of Nations to form international political ties, ultimately allowing them to promote the overhaul of outdated child welfare practices. Significantly, framing the experiences of Canadian women within expansive, transnational political boundaries draws attention to colonial legacies that continue to impact Canada. In her essay, Lorna R. McLean describes the life and work of Shakespearean scholar and prominent peace activist Julia Grace Wales. Though she spent most of her working life teaching in Wisconsin, Wales forged international connections and constructed a transnational identity in order to further her political aims. McLean compellingly argues that Wales was disregarded by scholars because her life story did not adhere to the Canadian national narrative.

Contextualizing feminist activism within the realm of employment, Rose Fine-Meyer examines the efforts of the Ontario Women’s History Network/Le reseau d’histoire des femmes to connect teachers with academic researchers so as to equip them to teach women’s and gender history, thereby improving curricula. Also dealing with the intersections of work and activism, Ruby Heap’s essay explores the precarious relationship between female engineering organizations and the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Because young, female engineers benefited, along with their male colleagues, from government funding for science and technology, these women were far more apt to insist upon gender equality, eliding the gender gap within their own profession. As feminist activism became increasingly opposed to government policies, the ideological divide between the women’s movement and women’s engineering organizations broadened.

As Carstairs and Janovicek note in their introduction, Feminist History is the first all-encompassing collection of essays concerning Canadian women’s history to be published in ten years in Canada. Contending with the connections between women’s employment, family life, and feminist activism throughout national history, this volume is indeed a timely contribution to the field of Canadian history. Drawing upon cutting-edge feminist theoretical perspectives and methodological developments, the essays included unquestionably encourage us to consider the continued importance of feminist perspectives in historical research.

This review “Feminist History Reconsidered: Gender, Activism, and Equity in Canada” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 146-47.

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