Women in Publishing

Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish

With Toronto Trailblazers: Women in Canadian Publishing, Ruth Panofsky broadens and sharpens the focus of her practice as a historian of Canadian publishing, which includes her earlier histories of the Macmillan Company of Canada and of the Oxford University Press (OUP), along with a series of short but impactful biographical studies of women who worked for or adjacent to the English Canadian publishing houses of Toronto from the 1930s into the early 2000s.

By zeroing in on seven significant female employees of major trade and educational publishers, Panofsky aims “to lay the foundation of expansive scholarship on the subject of women and Canadian publishing by first considering the significant gains made by key women in mainstream publishing houses.” This focus has the effect of limiting Panofsky’s study to white women in Toronto, which she implicitly acknowledges as problematic in her mention of Black, Indigenous, and francophone women in publishing who are outside the scope of this project.

Anchored in extensive and skillful archival research, each biography—of Irene Clarke, Eleanor Harman, Francess Halpenny, Sybil Hutchinson, Claire Pratt, Anna Porter, and Bella Pomer—expertly weaves together correspondence, professional records, interviews, and other primary sources into a compelling professional narrative. The strongest are those of the most contemporary figures—Porter and Pomer especially—where records are rich and Panofsky can explore how these women navigated and negotiated their personal and professional lives, shaped the practice and field of publishing in Canada, and used their personal and professional privilege to speak out on issues of gender, race, and Canadian culture.

Some authorial and editorial decisions do bear questioning. The cover graphic reductively symbolizes women editors with pink pencils; this is mirrored by some shortcomings in how Panofsky addresses the intersections of work and gender. The many stories of challenging working relationships among female editors and male publishers and authors would have benefited from a stronger attempt to illuminate how adapting to (and being limited by) the gendered expectations of women in the twentieth-century workplace shaped each woman’s impact on the field.

Likewise, a more nuanced approach to disability would have benefited the chapter on Claire Pratt; Panofsky frames Pratt’s resignation from McClelland & Stewart to work freelance (with better control over her working hours and conditions) as a personal choice, rather than one driven at least in part by systemic ableism. And even though Panofsky should have been able to do so (as I was for my work on poet Jay Macpherson), she assumed she would not be able to access the in-house OUP archives for this project. In consequence, there’s a significant gap in Panofsky’s archival research in the chapters on Irene Clarke and Eleanor Harmon.

Despite its occasional limitations, Toronto Trailblazers is a fascinating and worthy addition to Canadian publishing history, one that will hopefully lay the groundwork for a more expansive history of women in Canadian publishing and how their contributions shaped what and how we read today.

This review “Women in Publishing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.