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Documenting First Wave Feminisms: Volume I: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents

By Nancy Forestell, Maureen Moynagh

Documenting First Wave Feminisms: Volume II: Canada: National and Transnational Contexts

By Nancy Forestell, Maureen Moynagh

Review By Melanie Buddle

May 15, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 220-222


Historians of first-wave feminism: I am sorry to say that no matter how many more authors we nudge into the canon, we cannot escape the Eurocentric origins of the feminist pioneers. Documenting First Wave Feminisms, edited by Nancy Forestell and Maureen Moynagh, is a two-volume set of primary documents that seeks to connect the activism of Canadian first-wave feminists to their international sisters. In both volumes, the editors attempt to go beyond some of the well-trodden themes addressed by primarily white, relatively privileged first-wave feminists including moral reform, temperance, and suffrage debates. The more international Volume I, and to a lesser extent the Canadian-focused Volume II, strive to document some lesser-known women’s writings about slavery, pacifism, citizenship, class, and political ideology. Forestell and Moynagh include non-white and non-European authors and document international collaborations between feminists, such as the International Conference of Socialist Women, the International Council of Women, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and other pan-American and non-European conferences and collaborations. Yet, as they acknowledge in their introductions, Eurocentric exclusion persists almost without exception. The jaded among us will not be surprised to read yet again, for instance, that most white feminists thought that women should have rights as citizens but failed to see aboriginal women as citizens.

Forestell and Moynagh demonstrate the dominance of the voices of well-educated, wealthy, white settler feminists. They acknowledge the same awkward truths historians have been repeating for years: many feminists advanced equality for some women but not all women, and “whiteness and class privilege were formative for the mainstream organizations” in North America and Europe (I: 5). In Volume II, Forestell argues that “[I]n terms of formal connections with international women’s groups, without question Anglo-Celtic middle-class and upper-middle-class women predominated. They, after all, had the financial means, time, and desire to engage in regular correspondence and to take long overseas trips” (II: 10).

There are notable exceptions. Particularly illuminating are documents from Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, and other international feminists, many of whom acknowledge that class trumped gender. As the Indian feminist and socialist activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya cogently stated in a 1936 speech, the feminist movement was “a symptom of capitalist society and has no place or reality in a mass class struggle such as one visualizes India to be heading for” (I: 263). For Chattopadhyaya, issues like property rights, voting rights, and economic freedom were the concerns of the few, not the many: the right to exercise the vote had little meaning when most women had no property and saw no benefits from the franchise (I: 265). The inclusion of the transcript of Chattopadhyaya’s speech demonstrates why it was, and remains, hard for activist women in multiple countries across multiple decades to share a sense of sisterhood, and why it was difficult to bring all perspectives into two volumes.

I applaud the efforts to show a more diverse first wave — and in Volume II, to include writings by French Canadians — but we cannot escape the origins of the feminist movement, either nationally or internationally. Searching out more diverse sources helps but overall, readers will inevitably see many familiar names in both volumes: Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Cairine Wilson, Emily Murphy, and Georgina Binnie-Clark, to name but a few.

While the Canadian volume strives to include Anglophone and Francophone writers, it provides little other regional nuance. Students in British Columbia will not see much regional distinction. Documents by Canadians are broken up between prominent Anglophones, slightly more radical Anglophones, a few French Canadians, and a couple of notable Aboriginal women, but the regional strokes are very broad, which is perhaps not surprising given that the Canadian documents are set in the context of international currents.

However, for young English-speaking scholars reading primary documents for the first time, the collections will be valuable. Even without delving into the transnational themes being developed, what will strike the uninitiated is the language of power and independence in many of the writings. First-wave feminists were vociferous in claiming full equality with men, and they espoused some pretty radical perspectives. Writings against Muslim women wearing the veil, and against women taking their husbands’ names, alongside speeches by pacifists and socialists, are impressive. Even the eugenicist-intoned piece on family limitation by Margaret Sanger is refreshingly blunt: women “must learn to know their own bodies,” and should, Sanger asserts, experience desire and sexual satisfaction (I: 282-283). My sense is that young women will view some of the writings contained in both volumes as surprisingly modern. Two excellent pieces are included in Volume II by Nahnebahwequa (Catherine Sutton, the Anishinabe writer), who is very clear about her identity and her property rights; as the editors state, her piece contains “important and tangible evidence that … imperial foundations were contested from early on and, of particular significance, by an Aboriginal woman” (II: 21). A strong excerpt from a 1940 speech by Cairine Wilson stresses the need for Canadians to relax our “intense nationalism” in order to be more welcoming to refugees (II: 63). Wilson’s speech connects nicely to Volume I, as she refers to hearing the Indian social reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya speak at a conference in Washington: “I felt ashamed when I asked Kamaladevi if she were coming to Canada, and she replied, ‘You know the difficulties of even a visit to your country.’ Why must we make it impossible for the women of sister Dominions to come to us?” (II: 64).

While those young women who hesitate to call themselves feminists, and who have never wondered why they take their fathers’ and husbands’ names, might find these women quite rebellious in their feminist politics, the authors included in these volumes might be equally surprised at the lack of progress that has been made today. For these reasons, it is good to share sources and voices from the first wave even while bracketing them with strong analysis and cautionary notes about the era and the women who lived it and wrote about it. My final regret is one shared by the editors: the “ideal documents book of the international women’s movement would itself be an endeavour of transnational collaboration” (I: 13). Both volumes address international subjects but are unfortunately dominated by English-speaking authors. Despite this, and despite the recurrence of issues we all keep facing in sources of this era — the awkward eugenicist views mixed with the moral purity dogma, tones of racial superiority, and the dominance of writings by white Anglophone women — there is value in both volumes, particularly for undergraduate students.


Documenting First Wave Feminisms: Volume I: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents 
Nancy Forestell and Maureen Moynagh, editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 434 pp. $39.95 paper.

Documenting First Wave Feminisms: Volume II: Canada: National and Transnational Contexts
Nancy Forestell with Maureen Moynagh
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 352 pp. $30.95 paper