- Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History by Joan Sangster
Fans of Joan Sangster will be exceptionally pleased with the anthology of her work, Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History. Spanning a prolific career of foundational contributions to socialist-feminist thought in the field of Canadian women’s and gender history, the collection features snapshots of some of Sangster’s most influential and frequently cited research. In tracing the trajectory of her work over thirty years, Sangster also provides a lens through which to view the shifting landscape of historical writing in Canada, illustrating that the personal remains highly political terrain.
The collection of articles covers a diverse range of research topics, but each remains compellingly united by an overarching narrative that traces transformations in Canadian historical scholarship. The changes and continuities in Sangster’s work illustrate much broader trends in the field, while reminding us that historiographical progress can remain elusive. As Sangster asserts in an extensive introduction in which she reflects on thirty years of women’s history, “A few still see a pecking order of sophistication, with women’s history superseded by gender history. My own view is that hierarchies in this regard are not particularly useful” (4). [End Page 621]
Organized into five thematic sections, each is prefaced by an introductory essay that interrogates the prevailing cultural and theoretical climate in which they were crafted. Ever cognizant of the role of the author in shaping stories, Sangster carefully punctuates meticulous theoretical considerations of her own experiences and politics, showing how these in turn have shaped her research and scholarship. The first section grapples with a “moment of discovery” in women’s history, when women remained largely invisible in histories produced within a male-dominated field. Her article on the 1907 Bell Telephone strike is thus situated within its cultural context: it, “like other women’s history of the period, was both corrective and additive” (49). It nonetheless remains a key contribution in destabilizing androcentric narratives of the past. The following section, “Looking Backwards,” provides a glimpse into Sangster’s substantial research on women and Canadian left politics.
A cross-section of some of the author’s impressive work in the field of oral history is aptly highlighted with chapters featuring her theoretical and practical writings on manufacturing consent in Peterborough, which kicks off with her seminal piece on workplace paternalism, “The Softball Solution.” Recognizing the blindness to race, imperialism, and representation in earlier feminist writing, the next section provides a sampling of her work influenced by Foucault, feminism, and postcolonialism. Here she revisits stories of working-class crime and delinquency, while also paying more careful attention to representations of Indigenous women. A materialist critique continues to underpin her analysis into the final section, which explores “embodied experience” through letters to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the making of a fur coat in Canada. The latter is particularly impressive in scope, moving from bush production to manufacturing and retail work. In focusing on the labouring body, she shows how “women’s bodies were implicated within and constituted by three social processes, of capital accumulation, consumption, and colonialism, yet they could also become sites of contestation for the very forces that created and shaped them” (414).
Even as Sangster adopts strains of postcolonial and postmodern thought, she continues to critically engage with prevailing theories, making this an optimal teaching resource. While self-reflexively outlining where she agrees and diverges with the ideas shaping current scholarship, she remains true to arguments advanced by feminists of the 1980s who urged “that we must also own up to the political values and priorities that animate our writing, rather than masking or disguising them, so that readers will be able to engage critically with our [End Page 622] arguments” (88). Sangster’s work offers the opportunity to explore how women’s and gender history have altered over time, while also honing the critical thinking skills required to interrogate how the scholar and theoretical frameworks employed affect the nature of...