Many historians, including myself, tend to overlook various “history months,” mostly because it’s always history month for them. We’re the kind of nerds that do this kind of thing for fun. However, October is Women’s History Month in Canada, and, especially given the recent article by Elise Chenier, Lori Chambers, and Anne Toews, “Still Working in the Shadow of Men? An Analysis of Sex Distribution in Publications and Prizes in Canadian History” on the underrepresentation of female authors in the field, I want to highlight some of my favourite scholarship on the history of women in Canada. Many organizations are getting in on this, and are using the hashtag #becauseofher to spotlight women who have inspired. These are books and articles that I go back to again and again, that I actually enjoy reading, that fired my imagination, and that have shaped my own approach to historical research. I’ve tried to limit this list to women’s history rather than the history of gender and/or sexuality, given the theme of this month. And so, in no particular order, they are….
Constance Backhouse, Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: The Osgoode Society by Women’s Press, 1991).
This book is one of the first, if not the first, scholarly book on the history of women in Canada that I ever read. I first read this book back when I was in CEGEP (that’s the last year of high school and the first year of university for those of you not from Quebec). I was researching a paper on the history of battered women’s syndrome in Canada (I know, a cheerful topic), and I was delighted to find a book that so closely matched what I was looking for. In the years since, I have returned to this book again and again. Though very much a product of its time, I still think this is the definitive book on women and the history of law in 19th century Eastern English Canada (mostly Ontario). The lack representation of racialized and Indigenous women in this book is one of the biggest flaws with this book, but this is something that Backhouse herself has addressed in a subsequent monograph. I continue to be impressed by the amazing amount of work that went into this book and the fact that it still remains eminently readable. It’s also really fun to read if you like true crime podcasts too.
Andrée Lévesque, “Deviant Anonymous: Single Mothers At The Hôpital De La Misericorde In Montreal, 1929-1939,” Historical Papers (January 1984): 168-184.
Continuing on my trip down memory lane, this is another article that I read back when I was still a student. However, I didn’t realize that this article is actually older than I am until just now. Ouch. Anyways… I have been interested in history for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been especially fascinated by the everyday lives of people. I never really cared about wars or politics; I wanted to know how people lived. (I blame this on my obsession with Little House on the Prairie.) But most of the history that I learned about as a child dealt with the experiences of elites. So imagine my surprise when I came across an article about single mothers in the 1930s. I didn’t even know that this kind of history was even possible. It opened my eyes to so many possibilities. I also felt a strong connection with the young women in this article, since many were about the same age that I was when I first read this article.
Bettina Bradbury, Working Families: Age, Gender, and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montreal (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
If Petticoats and Prejudice is the first book I read on women’s history of Canada, then Working Families is the first book that made me want to be a women’s historian. While this book is technically about the history of families, much of it focuses on the experiences of women. I cannot tell you how much I love this book. So much so that the few times I’ve met Bradbury, I’m sure I acted like a complete idiot. To me, this is the epitome of what social history should be. Bradbury’s ability to combine qualitative and quantitative research to tell stories about the everyday lives of working-class women in Montreal pretty much takes my breath away. This is my model of what a work of social and women’s history should be. Not only do I go back to this book constantly, I use it every single time I teach a Canadian history survey class. Just go read it.
Bettina Bradbury, Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).
Since I’ve just talked about Bradbury’s work, I may as well mention her second book, Wife to Widow. Even though this book had nothing to do with my research, I spent my free time during the summer reading this book a couple of years ago. That’s how much I liked it. I like this book for many of the same reasons I like Bradbury’s previous work, but for me, what stands out about this book is the way in which she traces the lives of women through government and personal documents. I am in awe of the time, care, and attention that this kind of research took. This information allows Bradbury to create such a rich and textured imagining of the experiences of widows in 19th century Montreal that you can almost reach out and touch it.
Mary Anne Poutanen, “Bonds of Friendship, Kinship, and Community: Gender, Homelessness, and Mutual Aid in Early-Nineteenth-Century Montreal,” in Negotiating Identities in 19th and 20th Century Montreal, edited by Bettina Bradbury and Tamara Myers, 25-48 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005).
I recently found out that Poutanen actually uses an article of mine when she teaches Canadian history. I’m pretty sure you could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard this. Because I just love this article. You may noticed that I really like social histories of women in Montreal. This one is no exception. Once again, the level of research and resulting vivid stories are just so impressive. I especially love this article because of Poutanen’s ability to give voices to some of the most marginalized people in history and the genuine compassion she displays when talking about their lives. She does not gloss over or minimize the harsh reality that these women faced, but she also shows how women used the resources at their disposal and their relationships with other women to try to make their lives better. Again, this is one that I use regularly in my teaching.
Elsie Paul, in collaboration with Paige Raibmon and Harmony Johnson, Written as I Remember It: Teachings (??ms ta?aw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).
This book…. This book is just amazing on so many levels, I can’t even talk about them all here. Elsie Paul is a Sliammon Elder, and in this book, she tells the story of her life and her community. (See, I do like research about women outside of Montreal!) Raibmon and Johnson interviewed her for this project, but they deliberately step back to support Paul’s narrative. The result is a beautiful narrative where you learn as much about Paul as about yourself. We are truly privileged that Paul chose to share these stories with us. In my opinion, this book is an example of the heights that academic scholarship can achieve. It invites us to reflect on the role that historians play in sharing historical narratives, the connections between stories and story-tellers, and that need for respecting other visions of the past.
Mona Gleason, “Embodied Negotiations: Children’s Bodies and Historical Change in Canada, 1930 to 1960,” Journal of Canadian Studies 34, no. 1 (April 1999): 112-138.
I’m pretty sure that this was my introduction to body history, and it completely bowled me over. This is another article that I first encountered in graduate school. While I was already a feminist at that point and very familiar with the concept of gender, this article opened my eyes to so many possibilities. Again, this isn’t strictly about women’s history. But what stands out in my mind are the ways in which gender (and race and class) was literally written onto and into the skin. This article was a major source of inspiration for my subsequent work in body history and the connections between beauty, ethnicity, and nationality.
Not available online except through institutions.
Valerie J. Korinek, Roughing it in the Suburbs: Reading Chatelaine Magazine in the Fifties and Sixties (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).
There are few books that are as sheer fun to read as this one. I still talk about the Ms. Chatelaine contest every time I teach Post-Confederation Canadian history, and every time I do, it’s a highlight of the course for my students. When I was first starting my research, this one was of the few works on postwar Canada, and pretty much the only one I could find that dealt with women specifically. For a time, it was practically my bible. I’m still shocked that I don’t actually own a copy, since I referred to it constantly during my dissertation. I was so impressed with the research that Korinek did with the magazines themselves as well as the archives of letters to the editors of Chatelaine. I was fascinated by the inner worlds created by the editors and readers of the magazine, powered by their imagined realities and fantasies. I also love seeing the readers talking back to the editors.
Catharine Anne Wilson, “Reciprocal Work Bees and the Meaning of Neighbourhood,” The Canadian Historical Review, 82, no. 3 (September 2001): 431-464.
Ok, this one is kind of cheating, but it’s my list so I’ll cheat if I want to. 😉 I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be allowed to have a Ph.D in Canadian history without reading this article. Again, while this technically focuses on the history of neighbourhoods, Wilson does spend a significant amount of time talking about the lives of rural women. Her work on the building of communities, kinship ties between neighbours, and the concept of reciprocity really resonated with me, especially since I could see many of the same patterns around me when I was growing up. I also loved reading about all of the “bees” that rural women were involved in, and this may or may not be the reason why I ended up joining a knitting group…
Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal (Toronto: HarperCollins: 2006).
I am actually quite ashamed to admit that, until I read this book, I had no idea that slaves, whether of African descent or Indigenous origin, lived in New France. Funny how none of my Quebec history textbooks from high school mentioned that part, huh? This book played a major role in setting me down the path towards reorienting the way I see Canadian history and how we are taught specific narratives about the past. This book caused me to reconsider my own prejudices and blindspots as far as Canadian history was concerned, particularly around the history of African-Americans and Indigenous peoples in Canada, as well as the kinds of history that could be written. I never would have thought it possible to reconstruct the voices and lives of black slaves, especially female slaves, prior to reading this book. Cooper’s poetic writing and her evocative ability to bring Angélique to life in the pages of her book also make it unsurprising that The Hanging of Angélique was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
It’s a bit amusing that I ended up with ten without trying… Anyways, these are my favourite works on the history of women in Canada (and you may actually learn more about me than these books in this blog post). But I would like to point out that there are so many more works that I also absolutely adore that look at the experiences of women at least in part. These include Joy Parr’s Domestic Goods: The Material, the Moral, and the Economic in the Postwar Years, Mary Ellen Kelm’s Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50, and Adele Perry’s On the Edge of Empire: Race, Gender, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871.
So what are your favourites books or articles about women’s history in Canada? Any recommendations? It occurs me to that my list is quite heavy on white heterosexual able-bodied cis-gendered women (both as authors and as subjects), and I would love to correct this so please send me your suggestions!
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