In Imperial Plots, Sarah Carter continues her important research agenda of reframing the history of western settlement from the viewpoints of those excluded from the dominant historical narrative. The perspective she offers is that of a patriarchal settler colonialism that aggressively displaced the Native population and shaped the Canadian West as the privileged domain of heterosexual white imperial masculinity. In this latest book, she focuses on women’s roles as farmers, in particular their struggle over homesteading rights over more than 50 years, from the late 1870s to the 1930s. Meticulously researched, it is an engaging but ultimately somewhat discouraging tale of the continued resistance of the Canadian government to women’s desire to establish new lives as western farmers, both by refusing outright to grant land to single or married women and by making it as difficult as possible for widowed women to obtain and hold land.
All Natives were barred from being granted land, regardless of gender, but instead were confined to reserves that government officials were keenly interested in divesting them of, whether by fair means or foul. Carter begins by discussing the dominant role of women in First Nations agriculture and their corresponding respected status as providers in their communities. Their involvement in this physical labour was seen by European men as a sign of lack of proper masculinity in Native males and as an indicator of the coarseness and absence of feminine delicacy in Indigenous women. Anxious to disassociate their females from this role, Europeans devoted much effort and ink to arguments showing that women were not well suited to agriculture. Their supposed physical weakness, lack of mental fortitude, and the necessity of their roles as housekeepers and mothers for the success of settlement were all advanced as arguments to justify their exclusion from homesteading. In contrast, the Canadian government was anxious [End Page 190] to encourage men, even single men, to establish farms on free land in the West, to “develop” it and claim it as imperial space. In the United States, single women were allowed to claim homesteads, a circumstance viewed with dismay as an example of American disorder.
Official discouragement did not prevent many ambitious and hardy women from attempting to farm, and Carter does well to detail quite a few of these cases, given the fragmentary evidence available. Widows were permitted to stay on their late husband’s land, and widowed women with underage children could apply for homesteads. Officials were wary, however, of potential attempts to gain land fraudulently so that a family could have double the allotment or for women to lie about absent husbands, be never-married mothers, or pass off other children as their own. The consequence was a high degree of suspicious surveillance of the “morality and virtue” (p. 23) of unattached women on homesteads; if they owned desirable land, predatory neighbours would readily report any hint of potential transgressions that would be tenaciously investigated by government agents.
Canada’s movement for homesteading rights for women expressed its indignation at these injustices and support for women farmers, primarily articulated by women journalists such as Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon, Lillian Beynon Thomas, and Nellie McClung (although E. Cora Hind, an indefatigable proponent of women in agriculture, is given a bare mention). Carter points out that some of them objected to the preferring of “foreigners” of “inferior” Eastern European stock as settlers over Canadian-born daughters of British origin. This argument was tricky, however, because the example of supposedly coarse, unfeminine, muscular Doukhobor women field labourers also intensified the arguments of those men who contended that a different model of womanhood, more in keeping with Victorian values of feminine delicacy and domesticity, was needed in the West.
Many aspirant women settlers moved from Ontario, but a significant number emigrated from the British Isles, and their tireless advocacy of farming for women in England is a major focus of the book. Groups such as the British Women’s Emigration Association and, later, the Colonial Intelligence League for Educated Women...