- Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter
Margaret Macdonald served as matron-in-chief of Canada's overseas nursing service during the First World War with the rank of major – the first such appointment for a woman in the British Empire. She also participated in the Spanish American War and the South African War, and nursed in Panama during the building of the canal. Nevertheless, she is also a surprisingly shadowy figure. In Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter, Susan Mann has gone some way toward rectifying this, but is hampered by some of the same problems that [End Page 324] Macdonald herself faced in her effort to write a history of Canada's nursing service in the First World War.
Margaret Macdonald came from a wealthy Catholic family in Nova Scotia. Her background offered her a degree of freedom and independence, and shaped her focus on duty and respectability. Mann reveals Macdonald as a complex woman with an equivocal, personal relationship to the processes and ideologies of her time, especially feminism, at times reinforcing, at times contradicting the limitations on nursing and military women.
She was also shaped by, and an advocate of, imperialism. In a neat comparison, Mann links Macdonald's imperial bond to her familial ties. She argues that both demanded a mixture of defiance and deference and 'required her to be dependent and obedient, subordinate and disciplined, domesticated to the service roles of helpfulness and cooperation, and faithful to a religion of hierarchy and authority. Yet these same ties gave her . . . scope to exercise her own power and authority, to determine her own way of living, to travel, compete, acquire status – and go to war.'
This effort at approaching imperialism on such a personal level, as part of the lived experience of a keen advocate rather than abstract ideology, is one of the book's strengths. Militarism was a part of her imperialism. Macdonald described herself as having 'a yen for wars.' It is a startling statement, which Mann balances by positing reasons for war's appeal to a woman of her time, from the idealistic – the appeal of serving a nation or cause rather than an individual – to the more mundane – military service offered clearer status than civilian nursing, and greater variety of work.
The last chapter describes Macdonald's life after the First World War. It is a rather sad coda. As it was for many veterans, the war remained the defining experience of her life, but she never regained her wartime sense of importance and remained on the margins of the military, nursing, and society. Continuing the comparison to familial relationships, Mann cites Macdonald's sense of being divorced from the army after the war, and likens her postwar life to that of a war widow.
Part of the difficulty was that the homecoming of the nursing sisters was understood as part of Canada's return to normality. Historical forgetfulness was another problem, one that Macdonald participated in. She was meant to write a history of women in the war, but the task proved beyond her, possibly beyond any satisfactory telling. Mann is at her interpretative best when she discusses its difficulties. Macdonald, perhaps in an effort at collaboration, solicited reminiscences from former matrons and nursing sisters; almost no one responded. Mann offers an explanation: 'Her letter seemed to request the soldier's stories rather than the nurses' and she had qualified it with the phrase [End Page 325] "of historical value." What woman in the 1920s would have used that phrase to describe any experience of her own? . . . Besides, as nurses they had been enjoined to silence since the very beginning of their nursing training.' The other problem was how to tell a woman's story within the male narrative of war. 'It was the soldiers' experience, and notably their death, that was privileged in memory.'
The biography is published as part of McGill's Footprints series, which examines the life stories of individuals who were participants in 'interesting events.' Macdonald's story fits well here, and Mann deftly uses Macdonald's experience to nuance larger narratives...