- Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies by Sarah Carter
By Sarah Carter. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016. xi + 421 pp. Illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 USD/$31.95 CAD paper.
Sarah Carter’s newest monograph is another impressive addition to her own extensive corpus and our knowledge of white Englishwomen’s roles in the colonization of the Canadian Prairies. This book’s central argument is that Canada resisted allowing white women to homestead decades later than the United States or even other British settler colonies because Canadian authorities clung to particular notions of English gender norms even after England itself had begun to loosen its hold on those same notions.
In chapter 1, a brief overview of northern Great Plains Indigenous women’s agricultural practices leads quickly to a discussion of the North American land policies which dispossessed Indigenous peoples and created the rigid grid which still organizes present-day Great Plains land uses. Chapter 2 introduces the vigorous nineteenth-century debate in England over whether or not women were capable of being farmers at all, and the hopes many activists had that the colonies might provide better opportunities for women. One of the only groups of white women who could legally homestead in the Canadian West were widows, because they were considered the “sole” head of their households.
Chapter 3 explores some of their experiences in the Canadian Prairies. Chapter 4 describes the white Englishwomen who became local celebrities by buying their land outright, and chapter 5 focuses on the woman who was likely the most famous example of an English-woman farmer, Georgina Binnie-Clark. The homesteads-for-women activists ramped up their activities in the early twentieth century by embracing an explicitly xenophobic platform, as described in chapter 6, “‘Daughters of British Blood’ or ‘Hordes of Men of Alien Race’?.” The final chapter explains that even that strategy, so useful for white women’s suffrage campaigns, was destined to fail because Canadian officials were simply unable to give up their fear that white Englishwomen on the Prairies could or would do anything other than have white English babies.
Imperial Plots is longer than it needs to be, with some lengthy tangential sections that don’t serve the central argument. But its greatest strength is the thorough attention paid to the many ways white Englishwomen fought for the right to farm the Canadian West and the stories of the women who succeeded.
University of Lethbridge