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  • Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies by Sarah Carter
  • Sue Armitage
Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies by, Sarah Carter. Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2016. xxii, 455 pp. $31.95 Cdn (paper), $25.00 Cdn (e-book).

In the 1970s, western women's historians were heartened to learn that single, unmarried women in the United States had successfully claimed homesteads in the West. In contrast to the sheltered domestic women so celebrated by western historians, here were stalwart, independent women who obtained free land by wresting a living from it with their own hands. Later research complicated the picture by showing that many homesteading women were not loners but participants in wider family strategies. But the excitement over the rediscovery of single women homesteaders demonstrated how hard it was, even for women's historians, to disprove the notion that all western women were suited only for domestic work. [End Page 614]

In Imperial Plots, Sarah Carter shows how much harder the fight could be when domesticity was official policy. In contrast to the US Homestead Act of 1862, the amended Dominions Land Act of 1876 specifically excluded single women from filing for homesteads in Canada's prairie provinces, limiting claimants to men and widowed heads of households (meaning with children under eighteen years old still at home). No subsequent efforts could change that policy: not the demonstrated success of women homesteaders in Manitoba before 1876 nor the widowed women who homesteaded in all three provinces in spite of official discouragement; not the urgings of the Canadian Pacific Railway eager to find settlers; not the well-known examples of women who bought land and made successful farms; nor the efforts of Georgina Binnie-Clark who mounted a well-publicized "homesteads for British women" campaign in England that gained the support of many Canadian suffragists. All of these efforts failed to budge what one baffled onlooker described as a "curiously strong prejudice" against the idea of British women as Canadian farmers.

If this brief synopsis were all there was to Imperial Plots it would be akin to the numerous studies of failed attempts to achieve woman suffrage in the US and Britain: interesting but slightly repetitive. Fortunately, Carter offers a different and richer perspective. While doing justice to each effort to change homestead policy, Carter widens the frame to explore the cultural attitudes that shaped the Canadian case. As she explains, "this book became a project of unraveling the profound entanglement of colonial and metropolitan histories, and of discovering how the colonial culture of prairie Canada was constituted through a complex interplay of the local, the region across borders, the national, and the imperial" (19).

Imperial policy about homesteading was of course made in London. In a fascinating chapter Carter lays bare a tangle of British beliefs about women and the land. In England, there was the convoluted class-based notion that while it was perfectly acceptable for women to be gardeners, they could not be farmers. Abroad, late nineteenth century imperialist attitudes insisted that while other, lesser peoples might allow their women to toil in the fields, British women should not. When coupled with another British plan to encourage "surplus" gentlewomen to emigrate to British dominions where males were in the majority, the solution was to train these women in domestic skills so they would be prepared for marriage in their new homes. The only problem was the women themselves: as Carter laconically puts it, "Gentlewomen were reluctant to cross the seas to scrub floors" (86). Nevertheless, colonial policy did not change: as late as 1929, "unaccompanied women" with limited funds had to demonstrate that they would accept domestic work before they were issued an emigration permit to leave England. [End Page 615]

By widening the frame beyond individual women Sarah Carter tells us more about single women homesteaders than any previous historian. Every chapter of Imperial Plots adds new and interesting details, many more than a brief review can cover, and their cumulative effect is enlightening. By considering the wider context so carefully and fully, Carter has made a major contribution...


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