- Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women
There is much to like in this revised doctoral thesis on representations of working women in Western Canada. As a literary scholar, the author examines how women are portrayed in periodicals, newspapers, fiction, poetry, and autobiography. She argues that there was an intense debate around the turn of the century involving the role of working women. McMaster, however, is not content merely to analyze the discourse that surrounds Western working women; she asserts in the introduction that she has 'tried to retain a sense of the real and material as well, so that the importance of women's agency and experience is recognized.' Working girls, she says, ignited 'society's imagination and its storytelling urges,' but they also helped to shape narratives of domesticity and resistance to them.
Chapter 1 examines the ways that white women were represented as carrying out the ideals of colonial settlement, while chapter 2 analyzes [End Page 580] how working girls were represented in Canadian writing. In the latter the author draws on the often-cited poem by Marie Joussaye, 'Only a Working Girl,' first noted by historian Wayne Roberts in the 1970s and discussed in my own 1998 study, Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour and the Left in Canada, 1890-1920. The author also features three novels and a collection of short stories dealing with working women for this chapter, though these particular selections are never explained. In chapter 3 McMaster delves into moral issues, noting that morality was always part of the debate on women's work. Here she uses white slave narratives and an autobiography of a prostitute who had a long career in the business to illustrate society's obsession with the vulnerability of working women. Women's agency comes to the fore in chapter 4, where the author looks at women's labour activism through two well-known labour disputes: the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 and the Vancouver Laundry Workers Strike of 1918. Although the author has some interesting observations on the role of working women's leisure activities as integral to the labour movement's sense of solidarity, the chapter fails to place the labour unrest in the context of war and postwar labour conditions. The fifth chapter dissects the mixed race workplace and contemporary views, particularly anti-Asian prejudice, through a Vancouver murder case and subsequent attempts to prevent Chinese employers from hiring white women. Although the author mentions Native women workers in British Columbia's canneries in this chapter, there is no discussion of their work or how it was represented. In the concluding chapter, McMaster argues that the representations of working women differed from east to west, using only the works examined in chapter 2; one wonders if a different selection of titles would alter her conclusions. One important point she does make is the central importance of the figure of the working girl as a 'symbolic figure of social transformation.' As the West became settled and new industries took root, young working women represented a new era and their presence piqued the public's curiosity. On the other hand, working women's problematic exploitation also concerned those aware of the low wages and poor working conditions, yet few took their plight seriously, preferring to see them as 'just girls' who were temporary and transient employees.
One cannot help but wish that McMaster's discussion had been more securely tied to the historical context and to the existing scholarship on the history of Canadian women's work and labour activism. Nevertheless, readers will find that this is an engaging text that could be used in classes in Canadian and women's literature and in women's history. The figure of the working woman continues endlessly to fascinate us and reverberates even today in popular culture. [End Page 581]
Linda Kealey, Department of History, University of New Brunswick