Great Dames is a collection of biographical sketches, memoirs, and essays about twentieth-century Canadian women from all walks of life. While attempting to capture the meaning of the ordinary lives of extraordinary women, it also explores the possibility of challenging, even subverting, the traditional view of life writing as an endeavour to summarize and fix in time, the public careers of public men. The fifteen essays represent a variety of alternative approaches to feminist biography, including chronological narrative, thematic exploration, multiple biography, conversations between biographer and subject, interviews, diaries, and even fictional accounts.
In selecting their subjects, from Mennonite refugee women to an Ojibwa ethnologist, the contributors were asked to consider women who would be unlikely candidates for longer biographies; in the course of their research, however, it became clear that the lives of at least two of the chosen subjects warranted book-length examination. The selection also attempts to address perceived gaps in regional, class, racial, and disciplinary representation in life writing.
Together, the essays reveal that the content, form, and perspective of biography are now bound only by the creativity, research energy, and taste of the biographer.
'A unique and interesting collection of life stories which succeed in meeting the editors' wishes for the book.'
'Great Dames is a great read about little-known 20th-century Canadian women. It's a collection of 15 biographies written by women with various academic backgrounds, often in history or English. They seek not only to "capture the greatness of ordinary women's lives," but to challenge the traditional model of biography... Reading Great Dames has put me in touch with many layers of Canadian society that I never knew existed, and it does this by revealing fascinating segments of women's lives in dazzling detail.'
'By now women's life-writing - biography and memoir - is emerging, and at the same time the academy is questioning traditional ideas about biography, in particular the pretence that there is one objective truth in telling a life... The timing lends an electric buzz to Great Dames. Not only are women's lives - from criminals to doctors - being recovered but they're also being told in a kaleidoscope of styles. This book's fascinating even when it doesn't work.'
'And what subjects! After decades of research, through memoirs published and unpublished the distaff side of our story is beginning to emerge. Whether native or immigrant, roughing it in the bush or keeping house in town, pervious generations of women were human beings, not selfless saints who knew their place. Readers will be very grateful to writers such as Helen Buss, Sally Cole, Marlene Epp, Beverly Rasporich, and Patricia Smart for introducing a great bunch of dames.'
'The book's attempt to be inclusive is as admirable as its determination to subvert the patriarchal model of biography; that is, biography as a heroic story of (usually male) accomplishment. Great Dames aims for something more subtle and potentially satisfying: to tell the whole life.'
'Its intent is to subvert the traditional notion of biography ... by exploring the lives of women ... to illuminate particular places and times, as well as the relationship between biographer and subject. There's a bit of navel-gazing here, but the overall result is fascinating.'