- Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation ed. by Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek
Despite the growth of women’s and gender history in the academy, there are few current assessments of the state of the field. In the first edited collection in over ten years, editors Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek have drawn from the papers presented at a 2010 national conference to showcase the groundbreaking scholarship in Canadian gender and women’s history. The editors’ stellar introduction provides a much needed historiographical overview of women’s and gender history, sensitively tracing the emergence of the field, the debates over the proper object of study, the relationship of feminist history to women’s studies, and the connections between social history and women’s history. The editors argue that current feminist historians have been influenced by the last forty years of scholarship and by developments in affect theory, critical race theory, indigenous studies, and histories of imperialism and colonialism, as well as the turn to transnationalism.
The editors trace four prevalent themes in current scholarship: biography as a method to contextualize individual women’s lives, examinations of women’s labour and workplace cultures, women’s political [End Page 316] activism, and transnational networks of friendship and politics. Many of the individual articles draw on several of these broad themes. Adele Perry’s careful tracing of the biographies of James Douglas and Amelia Connelly, for example, demonstrates the fluid borders between family, gender, indigenous, political, and colonial history. Another standout chapter is that by Kristina Llewellyn, whose analysis of the post-war teaching career of Hazel Chong in a time of expanding citizenship discourses exemplifies the self-reflexive practice of feminist oral history. Karen Balcom’s article on the personal and professional relationships across the American and Canadian child welfare communities and Lorna McLean’s examination of the peace activism of Julia Grace Wales in Canada, the United States, and Europe convincingly demonstrate the importance of viewing Canadian economic and political history in transnational and transcontinental contexts. Several articles argue for understanding feminist activism within a broad conceptualization of political and institutional history. Anthony Hampton’s analysis of anti-Meech Lake activism adds important feminist context to the history of constitutional politics, while Rose Fine-Myer’s analysis of the grassroots Ontario Women’s History Network shows how academics, teachers, and political activists brought women’s history into the public education system. And the attentiveness to oral history, biography, and self-representation shapes the work of multiple contributions to the collection; Heidi MacDonald’s evocative close reading of three young Canadian women’s diaries from the 1930s shows how historians can use private sources to document the relationship between private choices and professional lives.
The rich tradition of Canadian feminist labour history is reflected in the many ways the articles address themes of work and labour. Gail Campbell draws on New Brunswick diaries to add nuance to debates about “separate spheres” and the public roles of nineteenth-century women, while Donica Belisle’s close reading of the depiction of sales-women in department store publications brings together feminist theories of consumption and sexualization with materialist examinations of women’s paid labour. The contribution of Quebec scholars to the theme of women and work is particularly welcome: Hélène Charron studies post-war female social workers at Laval University, placing their education and intellectual training in the context of Quebec’s social service profession. Catherine Charron uses oral histories of women in Quebec City to closely examine the relationship of women’s paid labour to the post-war domestic service economy. Hélène Charron’s article, along with the work of Catherine Gidney on professional women at Victoria College and Ruby Heap on the admittance of women into the ranks of professional engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, are important interventions in a field that has often overlooked the lives of twentieth-century professional women who do not neatly “fit” straightforward narratives about...