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Reading Canadian Women's and Gender History

Introduction: Feminist Conversations


Nancy Janovicek and Carmen Nielson


This collection began as a conversation between the co-editors about middle age. In reflecting on our own experiences, we made connections between our lives and the life course of women’s and gender history in Canada. We, like the field, were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s and could be perceived as both young and old, depending on one’s perspective. As our conversation drifted from the personal to the professional, we agreed that while Canadian women’s and gender history as a field was not as long-lived or well-established as national political history, for example, it is often talked about as if it were much more immature and fragmentary than it really is. Although several excellent essays that assessed the contours of women’s and gender history in northern North America have been written for international audiences, these unintentionally amplify the impression of a small field that can be apprehended in 10,000 words or less. We knew that Canadian women’s and gender history could sustain, and merited, a broadly historiographical volume of its own. And, as middle age inspires self-reflection, stock-taking, and contemplation of “what next?,” a collection of essays that coped with the field’s past and future seemed like an idea that’s time had come. We envisioned a book that captured the field’s continuities and identified discontinuities; offered a platform for established, mid-career, and emerging scholars to reflect on reading and writing Canadian women’s and gender history; and brought together the themes, issues, and questions that had animated the field over the long term. We also wanted to show the field’s maturity, extensiveness, variety, sophistication, and connectedness to international literature and theoretical perspectives.


Our call for chapters prompted contributors to critically examine Canadian women’s and gender history from its first texts to its most recent contributions with the aim of generating new connections, vantage points, and knowledge about the field. The proposals we received exceeded our expectations, and we were inspired by the diverse ways the authors approached our questions. Most were co-authored, demonstrating that feminist history continues to be a collaborative scholarly endeavour. Since we wanted to preserve the contributors’ unique interpretations of their projects, we encouraged them to chart their own paths through the literature according to their particular interests and experience. Our objective as editors was to create an open platform for contributors to offer their critiques, judgments, and evaluations according to their own perspectives. What follows are not conventional historiographies.


At the 2015 annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) in Ottawa, we hosted a one-day workshop for the contributors to share drafts, give each other feedback, and discuss the volume’s key themes. In this way, the book became a continuation of our initial conversation that extended to include the contributors. Those who could not be present video conferenced into the discussion. We talked about how various streams of women’s and gender history have informed each other, how to deepen the field by privileging diverse and marginalized voices, the ongoing disconnection between English and French historiography, and the potential for new directions. Our introduction to this collection is organized according to some of the themes arising out of our conversations that day: representation and meaningful inclusion in academe and in historical consciousness; the interconnections between feminist politics and the development of the field; and “recovery” history as an ongoing political project. A touchstone question guided our discussions: How can putting past and present historiography into dialogue with each other help us address the field’s ongoing silences and absences?


Although the following chapters cover many of the major themes in Canadian women’s and gender history, there are some important areas of scholarship that have been left out. Politics, the law, family and domesticity, medicine, and education, for instance, have been topics of interest to women’s and gender historians since the field’s beginnings, but due to considerations of space or in the absence of viable proposals, these have not received sustained analysis here.


There are also new topics and themes that have emerged relatively recently as distinct subfields – such as healthism and disability, body history, and the histories of affect and emotion – which are not represented but are acknowledged by several contributors as offering important theoretical and methodological insights that will shape future research. The impossibility of achieving anything approaching complete coverage in one volume offers only more evidence of the field’s breadth and extent.

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“It [history] requires us to join the study of the dead and of the living.” Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft


The ancient Greeks had a great interest in themselves. Within this interest was a curiosity concerning their origins – in other words, how they got to where they were. This era is often seen as the birth of history in the Western world, exemplified in their great historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Yet we know that there were clear differences among these giants and the other early historians that followed in the Greco-Roman world concerning the scope and nature of what constituted history: so it has been and will probably always be.


History is based on the reconstruction of the past lives of human beings, the most complex of all creatures, and it raises many questions. What exactly caused a chain of events of great importance in the past? What are our sources and can they be trusted? Can we be sure that what we have uncovered truly explains what happened? What was the role of chance, or pure accident, in our search for causes? Do we understand fully all of the effects of the past? Can we know what was in the hearts and minds of those who performed specific actions, especially if, in our eyes, the consequences of those actions were evil? Are there patterns of behaviour that recur? Is there a meaning to individual lives or the lived lives of the human race collectively? Are we connected to other forces beyond us – be they gods or forces of nature – that guide our actions?


This book is concerned with most of these questions as well as some additional ones. It is grouped into three central areas of investigation, with chapters on truth, morality, and meaning. These areas do not function as sealed compartments, as there is much flow in the discussion from one to another. In relation to the first area, the older debate about accuracy in the reconstruction of the past has been joined by new perspectives derived from other disciplines and the media. Whether moral issues, especially moral judgment, are within the domain of historians is a constantly recurring debate. Meaning in history, or the lack thereof, has continued to be an interest for a minority in the academic profession, and perhaps for more outside it. In the view of the author, there is an urgency to discuss these areas. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not this urgency is real.


Now, if I shift to myself for a moment as a sort of case study, I shall raise some of the central questions in this book with reference to a life of over seventy years (don’t worry – this is not an autobiography). How, for example, did I become a historian? From the time I was a schoolboy, I was always interested in history. Where that interest came from, I have no idea. Neither of my parents had any proclivity for it, nor did anyone else I can think of in my family. There were other subjects in school that caught my attention, and frequently I got better marks for my efforts there than in history. However, when I read outside class, which was not that often, it would be in history or historical fiction. The same was true of my choices in cinema.


As an undergraduate, my subject of concentration came to be history, by a somewhat circuitous route. Although my plan was to become a lawyer, my marks in history steadily improved. In my senior year, I decided to go on to graduate school, rather than law school, at least for the time being. I never left the profession once I entered it, but, facing some challenges, I often wondered if I had taken the right fork in the road.


In terms of my specialties in history, I can see more clearly some causes for the choices that I made. As my father was a European immigrant, taking the path of British and European history was probably based on interest in my roots. My dynamic mentor in graduate school was in social history, with a special interest in the roles of religions, and I soon was zealously consumed in study of the same interests in modern history. Both my parents were religious, although their traditions differed from each other. This probably explains both my early interest in the effects of sectarian strife and, as my own life evolved, other questions involving secularization and the challenges of unbelief. I can also see the causes of my later career pattern reinforced by professional rewards and advancement. However, looking back over my whole life, it could easily have gone in other directions. I am a fairly religious person (Catholic Christian), but I never felt much of a hand from above concerning my career – although in the other aspects of my life, there may have been times when I did. In defence of this thumbnail sketch of my life, I would invoke the name of the great historian E.H. Carr, who advises us that, in order to best understand what a historian has written, the reader should know something about the historian.


Further, in the interests of full disclosure, I would say that, in the fashion of most historians trained in my generation, I have tried to present the various sides of the central issues contested in this book in a spirit of critical inquiry. However, more than in any of my previous books, I have supplied and at times argued the Christian position. I have not attempted to present things in the “concealed mode of Christian apologetic,” as Michael Bentley has said of Herbert Butterfield. I do so openly.

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