Manitoba History: Women in Manitoba History, Introduction

by Mary Kinnear
History Department, St. John's College, University of Manitoba & Guest Co-Editor

Manitoba History, Number 11, Spring 1986

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Indian women and children, Little Grand Rapids, circa 1925.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The idea or publishing a women’s history issue of Manitoba History originated with Jean Friesen, the magazine’s first editor. As a result of her invitation to be guest editor, I organized a Canadian Studies conference at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba, in January 1985, on Women in Manitoba History. Fifteen papers were presented. Four of them are included in this issue; most of the others can be found in First Days, Fighting Days, to be published by the Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina.

The conference aroused considerable interest, with over one hundred fifty registrants. Those who presented papers included academics from across Canada, graduate students at the University of Manitoba, and independent scholars from Manitoba and elsewhere. Winnipeg archivists and historians joined Fellows of St. John’s College and members of the University of Manitoba History department in chairing sessions and leading discussions. Participants learnt about women’s history, its place within the field of social history, and the relationship between women’s history and contemporary issues, especially in Manitoba.

In Manitoba writers of women’s history have a wealth of resources to use. The most well-known secondary source is W. J. Healy’s Women of Red River, published in 1923 as a “tribute to the women of an earlier day” by the Women’s Canadian Club. It was a book “written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River era” by the provincial librarian, who received assistance in interviewing from the Club’s president, Margaret McWilliams, herself an enthusiastic historian and sometime president of the Manitoba Historical Society. Oral history tapes are the modern equivalent of the anecdotal interviews drawn upon by Healy, and they are among the primary source material highlighted by Vera Fast in her article on archival sources. Written primary sources, such as personal letters, diaries, reminiscences, and wills, and institutional records including parish registers, censuses, and government reports, are abundant in Manitoba in large part because of the presence in Winnipeg of the comprehensive Hudson’s Bay Company archives. Archival collections are not confined to Winnipeg, however. As Dr. Fast points out, much important material is housed in small collections around the province. Moreover, Sarah Carter calls attention in her article to the non-literary, material artifacts which can be found in museums throughout Manitoba and which, carefully interpreted, can reveal so much about women’s past experience. Written, printed, oral sources, supplemented by three-dimensional artifacts—all these are grist to the historians’ mill.

Researchers want to know who the women were, what ethnic, religious and economic groups they belonged to, and what they did. They also want to know what their attitudes were, and what others’ attitudes were towards them. That the opinions of others made a great difference to some women’s lives is revealed in several of the articles that follow. Sylvia Van Kirk’s contribution on Sarah Ballenden raises important questions about both the attitudes of historians and the assumptions of Red River society concerning female sexual morality. Angela Davis’s study of Mary Riter Hamilton shows that the artist received national recognition during her lifetime, but was consigned to later oblivion partly by art critics’ bias against women. Mary Horodyski’s article chronicles an unwillingness to see women in active roles outside the domestic sphere. Were there women in the Winnipeg general strike? If we relied on the published histories, we might find a reference to the telephone operators, the “hello girls” who left their shifts at 7 o’clock in the morning of May 15, 1919, but little more. Horodyski discovers more female involvement than has been recorded and suggests reasons for women’s invisibility in the traditional historiography.

Some women defied the female stereotypes and others conformed. Sister Marie Bonin offers a portrait of a group of women who did both. Grey Nuns supported and promoted family life and the orthodox patriarchal values of the Roman Catholic church, but they also, in a very visible way, performed nurturing work outside the home with full public approval. The same can be said of the Sisters of Mercy, who administered Asile Ritchot, the subject of Sheila Grover’s “Cityscapes” item. The celibate religious life was one of the few alternatives to life inside the domestic sphere for women. Within that family framework, life was frequently, and sometimes contentedly, lived to the full. Sarah Carter’s comparison of two sorts of domestic architecture shows how the daily round could differ, from one economic and ethnic group to another. Donna Norell’s account of the campaign for women’s “rest rooms” indicates some of the improvements made to life away from the farm for rural women in the twentieth century. Carol Budnick’s article shows the central part which Winnipeg women played in entertainment in the main metropolitan centre, sometimes as professional and amateur performers, more often as members of the audience.

This issue reflects the variety and liveliness of historical research on women in Manitoba. Historians today want to do more than pay tribute to women in the past. They also want to understand them in the context of the opportunities and the limitations they have experienced. We need to recognize the ways in which ethnicity, religion, class, work, and leisure related to gender. The resources are here in Manitoba to be mined.