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  • Documenting First Wave Feminisms. Vol 2: Canada—National and Transnational Contexts by Nancy M. Forestell with Maureen Moynagh
  • Marjorie Griffin Cohen
Nancy M. Forestell with Maureen Moynagh. Documenting First Wave Feminisms. Vol 2: Canada—National and Transnational Contexts. University of Toronto Press. xvi, 328. $39.95

This anthology is the second of a two-volume series of selected documents that relate to the nature of feminisms from the mid-1800s until World War II. The first volume used material from a wide variety of countries, and this second volume focuses on Canada. Both volumes aim to not only show the transnational relations related to feminist issues, thinking, and action but also bring into focus the voices of those characterized as being distinct from “elite white women.” The second volume deals with feminisms through specific sections on imperial/national feminisms; internationalism; suffrage; citizenship; moral reform, sexuality, and birth control; work and economic status; and pacifism. [End Page 355]

These days, Canadian first-wave feminists are frequently depicted as self-interested racists with a particularly narrow outlook on what would constitute women’s issues, primarily based on the morality of specific class interests. This book raises the issue and acknowledges that feminism in Canada is more “complex,” and the documentation certainly shows this. It’s always important not to look back at the past with twenty-first-century knowledge without understanding the specific audiences that were being addressed, as well as the context of the time. Reading original material certainly adds something very important to this understanding because, other than professional historians, few students ever get to see this material. In this sense they get to think for themselves about what the documents actually say, an enormous contribution of this book.

I would have liked to know how specific documents were chosen because with such a wide time period (over 100 years) and a fairly big range of topics this is important to know. The title does not entirely help because it also talks about “national and transnational contexts.” This may be why some groups’ and individuals’ ideas are included—that is, to give context? Related to this, it would be good to know how early “feminisms” are defined. I was surprised to see that some groups like the Ladies Empire Club of London, the Montreal Women’s Club, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and the YWCA (in the early periods) were included because their objectives did not appear to be “feminist.” Including these voices seems to be a conflation of women’s groups and female commentators with feminism, something that might exaggerate the imperialist nature of feminism. These inclusions also lead to the tendency, in the introductions to each section, to focus on what the individuals or groups did not do with regard to race and class, thus continuing the dominant perspective about what the “feminists” did not see. Perhaps providing more of a sense in the section introductions about how feminisms developed over time in relationship to specific areas could have given a fuller picture.

I was particularly interested in the work/economics section, which mostly focused on waged work. Quite a bit of feminist writing was done by women who worked in the home, either for market-oriented production or to support other market-focused labour (in addition to housework), and something from this would have extended the documents beyond those that are already well known and are more frequently cited in the literature, which is mostly what is found here. I guess part of the problem is that this section covers a huge time range, and I suppose confining it primarily to waged work was one solution.

Putting together an anthology like this takes enormous effort and time, and the inclusion of many documents that are not readily available elsewhere is a huge contribution. The particular attention to the voices of Aboriginal and other marginalized women is a very welcome counterpoint to the more familiar voices of early feminists. Students will enjoy [End Page 356] this book, and it will certainly generate discussion about what constitutes feminism, how it is shaped by specific circumstances, and how its early roots in Canada affect various feminisms...


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pp. 355-357
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