We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World

By Kate Braid

Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love & Survival on British Columbia’s North Coast

By Lou Allison, editor, and Jane Wilde, compiler

November 4, 2013

Review By Nancy Janovicek

Strong women grace the covers of both of these memoirs of pioneering women who made unconventional choices in the 1970s. Four women flex their muscles in the cover image of Gumboot Girls, proudly displaying the physical strength they have acquired living in northern British Columbia. Kate Braid effortlessly carries lumber at a construction site in the photo on the cover of Journeywoman. Women’s liberation in the 1960s emphasized women’s intellectual capacities as the basis for women’s equality. These books are the memoirs of smart women who came to realize that physical strength was also an important marker of liberation from restrictive gender roles that rested on persistent assumptions of women’s dependency, frailty, and unskillfulness. These books shed light not only on women’s proud defiance of these expectations, but also into their insecurities as they negotiated contradictory messages about being independent women.

It was Jane Wilde’s idea to compile the memoirs of thirty-four women who went back to the land in Haida Gwaii and in the area around Prince Rupert. Lou Allison, friend and fellow back-to-the-lander, edited Gumboot Girls. Reading Girls Like Us (Sheila Weller’s book about pioneering female rock icons of the 1970s) made Wilde aware of how the cultural shifts instigated by the women’s movement created new opportunities for young women to lead lives that did not conform to the nuclear family ideal that became entrenched in the postwar years. The sexual revolution, countercultural rejection of middle-class respectability, and feminist politics challenged social norms, making it possible for these women to experiment with alternative lifestyles. The ideas that such movements generated influenced the individual memoirs in unique ways. A common thread of the recollections is that broader social and political changes informed their choices and decisions in ways that were not obvious to them when they were in their twenties. As Agate Annie VerSteeg, one of the contributors in the collection, put it: “these were the seventies, and we were learning how to be liberated women” (51). These lessons drew from experiences ranging from the celebration of attending to homebirths to a poignant story about recognizing that a boyfriend was dangerous at a time when feminists were just beginning to talk about spousal violence. Individual liberation rested on a network of women friends who supported each other through difficult periods and laughed together during the good times.

Work is a central theme in both books. Women who moved to remote communities in northern British Columbia and eschewed the conveniences of urban life had to learn labour-intensive chores, such as gardening, canning, and sewing. Many contributors to Gumboot Girls came to appreciate the value of this womanly work. New policies promoting women’s equality in the workforce also meant they could work in male-dominated, well-paid jobs in mills and construction. Kate Braid’s account of her experience as one of the first women to work as a journeyed carpenter explores these issues in more detail. Her collections of poetry about working in construction are eloquent documents of the pride and joy of working with tools and of the challenges of facing male chauvinism daily on the jobsite. In Journeywoman, Braid delves deeper into the impact that marginalization in the workforce and union, and the anger of some male colleagues, had on her personal development. Braid explains how systemic discrimination against women made it difficult to be the only woman on a job site. The memoir also provides a rare glimpse into the emotional toll this had on women who worked in the trades.

I will confess that at times I found the thick accounts of mundane day-to-day activities, various lovers, parties, and adventures overwhelming. But on reflection, this is one of the important contributions of these books to social historians interested in how women took up feminist ideas in their own lives. The value of these memoirs is what these women deemed to be the significant events in their lives that should be recorded for posterity. Historians are attentive to issues that can easily be connected to the narratives of social history, such as work, social activism, and family. What these memoirs teach us is that these stories don’t make sense without contemplation of love and loneliness, joy and sadness, and pride and doubt.

Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love & Survival on British Columbia’s North Coast
Lou Allison, editor, and Jane Wilde, compiler 
Prince Rupert: Muskeg Press, 2012. 290 pp. $18.99 paper.

Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World
By Kate Braid
Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2012. 288 pp. $24.95 paper.