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Reviewed by:
  • Mary Murphy
Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Sarah Carter. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016. Pp. xxii + 455, $31.95 paper

Imperial Plots is a depressing tale. In her sweeping study of women's attempts to become landowners and farmers on the Canadian prairies, Sarah Carter recovered the voices of myriad women who reasoned, pleaded, and agitated for the right to homestead. To no avail. In 1913, journalist Lillian Beynon Thomas wrote that about the only way for women to acquire homesteads in western Canada was to kill off "any inconvenient husbands they happen to own" (148). The 1872 [End Page 828] Dominion Lands Act had permitted single women to claim homesteads. A change in the law in 1876 eradicated that right, stipulating that entry could be made by any person who was a sole head of a family or any male over the age of eighteen. From that point forward, the only women who could file were widows with minor children, and even then it was an uphill battle.

Imperial Plots analyzes the concerted effort to make western Canada an "agricultural jewel" of the British Empire, cultivated by heroic British male settlers, and to make the Prairies a male space where women knew their place as wives, mothers, or domestic servants. For all the government's professed desire to recruit women to the Prairies, Canadian land policy did little to make the prospect attractive. Even the most naive women had to be suspicious of rhetoric that claimed western households would treat domestic servants as treasured family members and that desirable husbands were thick on the ground. Indeed, a policy designed to force women into marriage by providing few economic alternatives seemed to indicate some suspicion that, left to their own devices, women would do anything rather than marry bachelor Prairie farmers. Despite the efforts of plucky British women to challenge this agenda, they failed. An intransigent government and a deeply rooted patriarchy, which feared, as Carter puts it, the gendered chaos that would ensue should women step outside traditional roles, quashed women's aspirations to become farmers and to gain economic independence.

Carter's book is broad in scope and deft in analysis. Putting the settlement of western Canada in an imperial context, she examines the ways in which women in Britain and in Canada sought to create a role for women as the female foot soldiers of an expanding agricultural empire, while finding satisfying work upon the land. Drawing upon archives in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, scores of newspapers from across the empire, local histories, memoirs, and publicity materials, Imperial Plots is based on rich primary sources, one of the hallmarks of all Carter's work. Her research uncovered the testimonies of scores of women who fought for a larger role than domestic servant in service to the empire. Some prevailed, but it was never easy, and policy was set against them.

While her focus is squarely on western Canada, by looking at the cross-border experiences of aspiring women homesteaders in Canada and the United States, Carter is able to demonstrate just how much the state shapes gender. Local studies of homesteading in the United States are plentiful, and Carter herself previously published Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One's Own, a collection of primary source materials on Montana's female homesteaders. In the United [End Page 829] States, the story of women homesteaders is a triumphalist narrative, a story of single, widowed, divorced, and deserted women who "proved up" on homesteads at higher rates than men, who sometimes stayed on the land, but who often sold it and used their money to further non-agricultural aspirations. Canada was determined not to replicate what the government saw as a topsy-turvy American gender system and curtailed as much as possible women's economic autonomy through land ownership.

Historians of North America often attribute the rise of the surveillance state to the First World War, but Imperial Plots suggests a precedent in the administration of public land policy. Carter's probing into the correspondence between female land claimants and the Department of the...


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