Skirting Gender in Early Drama

Reviewed by Kailin Wright

Kym Bird’s Blowing up the Skirt of History is a dynamic and compelling anthology of “recovered and reanimated plays” by Canadian women from 1876 to 1920. In recovering first-wave feminist plays, it collects some of the earliest English plays from different regions in Canada. With verve and humour, Bird uses public theory and feminism to analyze the plays’ constrained performance of nationalism and racial privilege. The anthology aims to offend dominant histories of Canadian drama that skirt (pun intended) the issue of gender and the role of female playwrights.


Blowing up the Skirt of History offers a substantial introduction and a collection of ten plays—each with its own introduction—that includes Sarah Anne Curzon’s Laura Secord: The Heroine of 1812 (1887), a collective creation (adapted by Bird) of A Mock Parliament (1893, 1896), Kate Simpson Hayes’ Slumberland Shadows: A Christmas Drama for Wee Ones (1898), Clara Rothwell Anderson’s The Joggsville Convention (For All Women) (1910), Sister Mary Agnes’ The Red Cross Helpers: A Patriotic Play (1918), Louise Carter-Broun’s The Soldiers (1915), Edith Lelean Groves’ The Wooing of Miss Canada (1917), Blanche Irbé Bremner’s My Soul-Mate: A Musical Comedy (1918), Mary Kinley Ingraham’s Acadia: A Play in Five Acts (1920), and Madge Macbeth’s A Demonstration in Scientific Salesmanship (1918). Each play’s introduction—by contributors Zaynab Ali, Laurel Green, Tanja Harrison, Melanie Williamson, and Bird herself—offers a socio-political context for the play and biographical information on the playwright. There is, however, some inconsistency in the content, research depth, and style of the introductions. At times, the reader wonders why a specific play was selected from the author’s oeuvre. The publication or performance date of each play would also be a helpful addition to the table of contents. Ultimately, however, Blowing up the Skirt of History challenges the gatekeeping of “good drama” that has previously excluded women’s work.


Bird celebrates the playwrights’ feminist fight for women’s rights while acknowledging the limitations of their activism. As Bird eloquently explains, the plays “are sometimes unconscious and certainly uncritical of the connections they make between their activism, racial privilege, nation building, and a fidelity to empire” (5). Racism, eugenics, religion, and imperialism form a backdrop to Bird’s discussion of first-wave feminist plays. Bird’s introduction and the shorter play introductions examine how these plays present the white Christian wife and maternal figure as a model Canadian citizen.


Bird argues that middle-class women harnessed their domestic role in the private sphere as a place from which to argue for education, voting rights, and professions that would enable them to better carry out their wifely and maternal duties. The Mock Parliament, for instance, asserts that a woman’s right to vote would enable her to guide her children into their adult lives (24). The Joggsville Convention dramatizes a middle ground between women’s rights and women’s domestic confinement that is characterized by maternity and a Christian sense of duty. As Bird says, “Women’s activism often cut two ways: it expanded their purview to validate and rationalize their public role, but it also sustained their private sphere domain of the intimate and domestic” (25). This relationship between the public and private drives Bird’s analysis and ties the collected plays together.


The critical introduction uses the public and private sphere to explain the plays’ feminist arguments and interconnect the issues of gender, race, and imperialism. Because the public and counterpublic are key to Bird’s historicization of and scholarship on these plays, further theorization of these concepts in terms of how they are understood today (through Jürgen Habermas and Michael Warner) and were understood in 1876-1920 would help explain why the (counter)public is the central through line for understanding imperialism, feminism, and racism in these first-wave feminist plays. The idea of counterpublics, for instance, is mentioned before Warner’s definition is fully explained in relation to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century playwrights. References to counterpublics in the short introductions to individual plays would also benefit from a definition because some readers may only use a section of the anthology.


The introduction explains that the anthology does not create a counter-canon of women’s writing and then offers a substantive list of what is left out, including “plays by Indigenous, French, African-Canadian, Chinese, Japanese, and Icelandic women” (8). Bird’s introduction raises the issue of who gets collected in anthologies and who is left out and why. Notably, middle- and upper-class white women wrote plays and had access to the time and tools to create drama. Still, the anthology threatens to reproduce the exclusion of women of colour. The introduction, for instance, mentions Pauline Johnson’s performance at Rideau Hall in 1894; a deeper analysis of her performance of “a murdered chief and his bereft daughter after the Europeans steal their land” (34) would help nuance the discussion of race and a feminist counterpublic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The anthology includes two appendices: “Bibliography of Playwrights Included in This Edition” and an “Abbreviated List of Popular Amateur Theatre in the 1920s.” An additional bibliography of women and works that are not collected in the anthology and that were excluded from white, imperialist feminist work during first-wave feminism would help integrate more diverse voices, artists, and works. Such an appendix could also open up the parameters of the anthology by including reviews, alternative forms of activism, oral storytelling, or non-documented work.


Overall, this anthology recovers early Canadian plays by women and makes a fitting companion to Bird’s monograph, which has a similarly provocative and sartorial title: Redressing the Past: The Politics of Early English-Canadian Women’s Drama, 1880-1920 (2004). The anthology collects some of the earliest plays written by white, British-identified women in Canada. I can envision using it in an undergraduate or graduate course on early Canadian drama or on first-wave feminist drama. Bird’s energetic writing style will certainly appeal to undergraduate students and help make early Canadian theatre more accessible. Blowing up the Skirt of History is an important work for anyone interested in early Canadian drama and feminist literature.





This review “Skirting Gender in Early Drama” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 6 May. 2022. Web.

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