Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Review: Beth Light and Veronica Strong-Boag, True Daughters of the North

by Mary Kinnear
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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In the four chronological chapters of this book, the authors arrange published materials on Canadian women in thirteen categories. For New France, British North America, Canada 1867-1917 and Post World War I Canada, we can discover what has been written about women under the topics of demographic and community studies, education, law, literature and the arts, marriage and the family, material history (which includes cooking and quilts), medicine, organisational and political involvement, religion, sexual morality and sex role images, leisure and work. Materials which do not fit the periodisation so neatly are included in the General Reference chapter, which also considers historiography, source inventories and other bibliographies. Few newspaper or popular magazine articles are included, but the authors present a generally comprehensive and serious collection. Each book or article is pithily described. True Daughters of the North therefore is an invaluable tool for all researchers, teachers, and students of women in Canadian history.

Its value as a research instrument is enhanced by a concise and attractive introduction describing the advantages of improving our understanding of women’s experience and women’s roles in the creation of the modern community. An understanding of women’s experience can add “a vital explicative dimension” to traditional histories which often “ignore the impact of broad trends at the local or family level.” Through the discovery and generation of vital statistics, in demographical studies, we can gain a better understanding of the entire society. We know already “the tremendous weight which the great majority of Canadians have traditionally attached to their intimate and personal lives.” Through an exploration of sexuality, in the study of prostitution, in a study of the roles which were considered appropriate for women in fur-trade society, and, for that matter in prime ministerial diaries, we can revise the implicit notion that sex was of little significance in Canada’s economic, social and political development. Because women have played so large a part in the inculcation of society’s values in its coming generations through their central role in child-rearing, we can also learn more of the personality types a community prefers: was initiative rewarded in childhood, or was dependence? And how were female qualities imparted to little girls while masculine characteristics were communicated to their brothers? The history of childhood as a distinctive youthful experience can be examined partly through a study of the mothers who shaped that experience.

Although prescriptive literature tended to confine women to the reproductive sphere, in child-bearing, child-rearing and homemaking, women were also engaged in productive work. Before industrialisation and the factory system dislocated the home from the work place, productive and reproductive work were integrated. The separation of the spheres of family and work brought hardship to the many families who could not afford to forego adult earning power, and this book contains much material on the subject of women’s work, its segregation, and its conditions.

The authors have rightly avoided the pitfalls of studying women in history through women worthies alone, or through a concentration on the hagiography of female institutions, or through an emphasis on the victimisation of women by men and patriarchal society. Instead, they have arranged the material in a way to allow future historians to document the independence and strength of women as well as their constrained options. Now that we have a reading list for the history of women in Canada. perhaps some brave person will dare to write the book.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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