- Canadian Women: A History
When Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Naomi Black, Paula Bourne, and Magda Fahrni joined forces to rework Canadian Women: A History for its third edition they responded to demand from colleagues for a revised edition that would provide an updated ‘synthesis’ of ‘the major demographic, economic, social, and political realities of Canadian women over 500 years’ (x). At the same time, they shared commitments to the original and still pressing feminist goals of the project, recognition that ‘women’s experiences and perspectives,’ however varied, ‘are distinct’ and should not ‘be judged inferior by male standards’ (14, 1988; 4, 2011).
Over three editions, it is worth asking whether Canadian Women has moved us closer to achieving these feminist goals. For me, the answer is yes. By telling women’s stories, highlighting different perspectives, and shifting previously intransigent historical periodization, Canadian Women has helped normalize the place of women in the history of Canada. It has made women’s stories more accessible to faculty [End Page 667] and students by making them easier to include and, perhaps more importantly, harder to ignore. The collection of online, open-access primary sources new to the third edition strengthens this contribution (www.canadianwomen3e.nelson.com). Writing an accessible and engaging textbook that synthesizes an ever-growing field is hard work. The authors achieve this and, as with previous editions, encourage greater recognition and understanding of the history of women in Canada.
While Canadian Women has surely altered the way in which history is taught in this country, how useful is it as a textbook for the classroom? As someone who regularly teaches a third-year course titled, Canadian Women’s History, I have a confession to make: I have never assigned this text as required reading; rather, it appears on my syllabus as a recommended resource. While I am willing to present Canadian Women as one narrative of the past, I am uncomfortable positioning it as the narrative. This is a challenge the authors acknowledge, having always called their work ‘“a” history of Canadian women,’ and one that faces all authors of comprehensive narratives (1). Nonetheless, when we position this text as the authoritative voice on Canadian women we limit our ability to achieve the feminist goals of the project, particularly when we reflect on the challenging relationship between the equality of women and decolonization.
What story does this textbook tell my Anishinaabeg and Cree students, as well as their settler classmates? Certainly Indigenous students will relate more to this new edition of Canadian Women since we learn more about Indigenous women’s experiences and perspectives, and this over longer periods of time. In previous editions, the role of women as chiefs was limited to the first section on ‘The First Women.’ In 2011, we read about Anishinaabekwe Elsie Knott, the first woman elected chief after 1951 amendments to the Indian Act ‘legalized’ the involvement of women in band elections (417). We are also given a sense of the rising numbers of female chiefs across the country since that time (575). These stories add resistance, strength, and cultural continuity to the narrative of colonization. Indigenous women had power and still have power in their communities. The origin stories of the Wendat’s Aataentsic and Nuu’chah’nulth’s Copper Women starting each volume reflect the authors’ ongoing commitment to representing Indigenous women’s voices in a respectful manner, and with each edition, they highlight a greater awareness of the importance of naming and language. But the very use of origin stories also points to the need for greater change. In 2011, as well as in 1988 and 1996, the authors qualify origin stories as historical sources, describing them as “inspiring but vague” (8). For Anishinaabekwe there is nothing [End Page 668] limited about these stories for understanding their past(s), politics, and culture. Basil Johnston’s scholarship tells us that the stories of Spirit Woman teach us about the ‘primacy of Nokomis,’ the centrality of humility, and the importance of animal life to a balanced world in Anishinaabeg communities...