Manitoba History: Reviews: Catherine A. Cavanaugh and Randi R. Warne (editors), Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women’s History
Catherine A. Cavanaugh and Randi R. Warne (eds.), Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women’s History, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000, ISBN: 0774807946, $85.00.
Orpha E. Galloway (ed.), Women of the War Years: Stories of Determination and Indomitable Courage, Gladstone, Manitoba: Orpha E. Galloway, 2000, $69.55.
Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women and Their Stories, Winnipeg: Manitoba Clubs of the Canadian Federation of University Women, 2000, ISBN 1-889409-20-0, $27.95.
The twelve essays in Telling Tales (including a useful introduction) focus upon the history of the women of western Canada, including British Columbia. Some contributors, like Sarah Carter and Frances Swyripa, are familiar names in Canadian historical writing, but the collection also introduces historians whose recent scholarship makes welcome contributions to what appears to be a healthy and growing area of study. New voices include Myra Rutherdale on women missionaries in the North-West, Nancy Pagh’s study of the discourse of women’s travel writing from the same locale and period, and Sheila McManus on the work and politics of Alberta farm women. Two excellent articles by Nanci Langford and Beverly Boutilier describe the evolution of health care on the prairies, revealing the centrality of women to institution-building and social adaptation in newcomer communities.
These essays overlap fruitfully with a number of other sub-sets of Canadian historiography: Aboriginal, gender and sexuality, labour, immigration, race and ethnic relations, and the history of colonialism and imperialism. The editors have aimed for “diversity—in approaches, in subject matter” (p. 6) and this collection certainly reflects a range of views on many of the current debates within historiography in this country, and internationally, whether around notions of Empire and imperialism; gender history as a project distinct from women’s history; or the importance of discourse and meaning to historical analysis.
The collection is self-consciously “cross-cultural/ multicultural,” (p. 7) and from that perspective includes work addressing the experience of European immigrant women (such as Frieda Klippenstein’s on Mennonite domestic servants in Winnipeg), and interesting new departures like Sherry Edmunds-Flett’s study of African-Canadian women living on Vancouver Island in the nineteenth century. Clearly there is something at issue here in addition to writing histories of difference. The editors stake out their project as a corrective to the history of the West—particularly the Prairie West—which “has proven especially resistant to including sex and gender as analytical frameworks,” and that has generally considered the West as “a masculine terrain, a space that was presumed ‘empty’ until filled with White men.” (p. 10)
These essays portray western Canadian newcomer women responding to a rapidly changing world, not only as they confronted new life circumstances on the frontier, but also as the society itself adapted and responded to pressure for change that often came from these women themselves. An interesting question raised by these essays is whether the context of the West allowed greater freedom to women, and altered gender relationships. The answer may be yes, but in a complicated—and perhaps limited—way. Frances Swyripa, in her essay using criminal investigation files to explore questions of sex and gender in Vegreville, Alberta between the wars, draws attention to the ways Ukrainian immigrants were victims of negative Anglo-Canadian stereotypes. However, some Ukrainian women were able to use the norms and institutions of their new host society to protect themselves against domestic violence, and to assert their rights as women. Other essays, like Catherine Cavanaugh’s on Irene Marryat Parlby, or Ann Leger-Anderson’s on the Saskatchewan social democratic activist couple John and Gertrude Telfer, illustrate how much mainstream notions of appropriate female spheres restricted women, through both external and internal compulsions.
Cavanaugh and Warne point out that, given the neglect of western Canadian women’s history, historians still face “the basic task of recovering women’s stories.” (p.11) This is the kind of project often undertaken by women outside of the academy, as reflected in Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women and Their Stories, written and published by the Manitoba Clubs of the Canadian Federation of University Women; and Women of the War Years: Stories of Determination and Indomitable Courage, edited and published by Orpha E. Galloway of Gladstone, Manitoba, in conjunction with a local women’s committee. The latter project brings together the written recollections of women who lived through the First and Second World Wars. This is an amazing range of testimonial letters, some quite brief but others essay-length. Many of them were contributed by women who served in one of a bewildering array of Canadian and British women’s war service organizations (I had no idea there were so many!) as switchboard operators, cooks, tracers, signalwomen, and nursing sisters. It is quite interesting to note how the elaborate jargon of the time still trips so easily off the pens of these women. Their stories reflect the excitement that war time service contributed to the lives of young women; opportunities to learn new skills, to travel, and in many cases, to meet the men they would marry. Usually isolated from the extreme horrors of life at the front, there were nevertheless dangers and sadness.
War brides have also contributed. Some of these women, like Henriette Kleemola, had difficult wartime experiences as European civilians in Europe. Henriette grew up in Belgium, and witnessed the murder of civilians by German troops in Vinkt in May 1940. She married a Canadian soldier, arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in July 1946, and settled in Saskatchewan. “Writing this story brings back painful memories I would rather never remember,” Henriette says, but also concludes, “it is important to tell our stories.” (p. 144) Women on the home front are included. There is a interesting description of the dangerous work filling shells in a munitions factory in Pickering, Ontario, written by Annie Simpson, who traveled from Glace Bay, Cape Breton, to work there, one of nearly one hundred young women who did so.
Switchboard operators at the Winnipeg Telephone Exchange, circa 1919.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
The stories are very touching, although fragmentary in places: one wishes it were possible to know more about many of these women. Through their voices we can discern how war shaped the lives of earlier generations of Canadian women and men, creating different patterns of life from those we think of as the norm. Grace Whaley, from Winnipegosis, joined the Air Force early in World War II, and became a hospital chef. She served for two years in the hospital at Tofino, British Columbia, longer than the usual nine month tour. The isolation made her extremely lonely and ill; she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, which she insists was “plain homesickness and so often since then I’ve wondered how many kids serving in the war died from it. I sure would have died had they not flown me out.” (p. 304) Grace’s grandfather, father, two brothers, and husband all served in wars, along with herself. She wishes her husband had also told his stories: “as with most Vets, he didn’t tell many,” she tells us. This is the value of the project of these Gladstone women. I hope that the full letters and the many photographs will be available in an archive for historians to access. Extraordinary Ordinary Women brings into the public eye the lives of a group of women who “made significant contributions to Manitoba’s life and development” from the time of the fur trade to the present. The forty-two short biographical sketches are based upon archival, published, and secondary material, but their authors in many cases conducted interviews with friends and family, and collected primary historical documents. Each is also accompanied by a photograph. The book is handsomely produced, and sources are carefully documented.
Had this book been published ten or twenty years ago, it would likely have included only white, middle class, anglo-Christian women; this collection is to be appreciated for its inclusion of First Nations, Metis, Ukrainian, Mennonite, Jewish, Philippina, and French Canadian women. Political commitments, too, are diverse, from suffrage (such as Amelia Lemon Burritt, who campaigned with Nellie McClung, the Benyon sisters and others in the Political Equality League to achieve the right to vote—at over ninety years of age!) to radical socialism (Rose Cherniak Alcin, a Russian Jewish Socialist, teacher at I. L. Peretz school, member of the Arbeiter Ring, or ‘Workman’s Circle,’ who ran and won as school trustee in 1919). The book is true to its title in telling the lives of some ‘ordinary’ women, like Eudoxia Shewchuk—“pioneer, homemaker, good neighbour.” (p. 7) An exception to the collection’s recognition of diversity is the lack of inclusion of lesbian women. Some of the profiles are pleasantly intimate, like that of the “eccentric” Winnipeg Tribune reporter, Lillian Gibbons.
These three books reflect how much the history of women relies upon the efforts of women within and outside of the mainstream of academic history. Only four of the contributors to Telling Tales hold positions in Canadian history departments. The volunteer women who compiled Extraordinary Ordinary Women and Women of the War Years reflect a continuing societal interest in documenting the forgotten lives of women.
Page revised: 14 October 2012
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