- This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada
Two linked events in the 1880s – the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains and the discovery of the hot springs at Banff – were instrumental in making accessible a hitherto remote and barely travelled territory of wilderness, peaks, lakes, and glaciers. These were the Alps of North America, so the development of spas, the recruitment of Swiss mountain guides, and the construction of resorts – albeit rustic – flourished along with the establishment of Canada's first national park dedicated to the preservation of the mountain areas.
This Wild Spirit is a collection of excerpts from the writings of some of the many women who came to see and discover and adventure in the mountains. Five sections include Metis and Aboriginals, 'literary travellers,' scientists and artists, explorers and mountaineers; a sixth presents varia; each section has an explanatory introduction; and excellent illustrations, both black-and-white and coloured, are provided.
The editor claims that her selections represent the experiences of women in the mountains from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, and this is largely accurate, although two excerpts from the 1990s are not only out of chronology but appear to have been included to flesh out an agenda drawn, seemingly, from the critical practices of feminist cultural studies. Thus the reader is invited to consider the collection as portraying 'the sensibility, manner, and frequency of the intersection and interaction of women and their work.' Problems [End Page 282] necessarily arise with this objective: the 'work' of Suzette Chalifour Swift, whom Mary Schäffer Warren and her party met in 1908 on the Swifts' homestead near Jasper, was 'very pretty work, silk embroidery on buckskin, in which of course we invested somewhat largely.' Photographs of Mrs Swift's embroidery patterns, which still exist in the Jasper-Yellowhead Archives, would have provided a kind of 'textual' analogue to the textuality of the rest of the book and would have grounded the discussion of the function of clothing as tied to gender both in its Aboriginal setting and in the debates over whether or not skirts were appropriate garb for mountain exploration. But even more troubling is the mixing of categories in the implication that the female occupation of embroidery can be equated with the 'work' of the novelists included here. Though the presence of Aboriginal and Metis women in the mountains must be regarded as significant, generic distinctions in a collection such as this are also important.
Similarly, there are issues with the last section, subtitled 'Mountain Culture, Mountain Wilderness.' Its provocative thesis is that 'women and images of women became synonymous with Rocky Mountain tourism between the World Wars' by means of advertising strategies, primarily developed by the CPR, and movies filmed in the Rockies with such Hollywood stars as Mary Astor and Marilyn Monroe that depicted women as both adventurous and fashionable, elegant and sports-loving. The publicity pamphlets studied here are compelling in their commodification of the mountain world, but the editor skews the evidence by neglecting to mention that other equally potent publicity schemes included images of male sportsmen and, of course, the ubiquitous red-coated Mountie. What should be noted, too, is that the presentation of the mountain areas as modern, luxurious, cosmopolitan holiday locations is also related to the desire of those promoting tourism to show the Rockies as the opposite of rustic, primitive, and back-country in order to compete with the European Alps as havens for wealthy sophisticates.
The irony here is that the women whom Skidmore holds up as models of the 'wild spirit' were just such people: wealthy sophisticates from the eastern United States. Mary Vaux Walcott, Mary Schäffer Warren, Georgia Engelhardt, and Catherine Robb Whyte all had privileged, cultivated backgrounds. Whyte and Engelhardt climbed the mountains after the Rockies had been opened up to commercial tourism and benefitted from and contributed to the popularization of the area as a holiday experience. Walcott and Warren, on the other hand, were in the...