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One Step Over the Line: Toward a History of Women in the North American Wests

By Elizabeth Jameson, Sheila McManus

Review By Chris Clarkson

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 161 Spring 2009  | p. 127-30

One Step Over the Line is the second published collection of papers drawn from a conference held at the University of Calgary in 2002 (the first, Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women’s History, was reviewed in the Autumn 2006 issue of BC Studies). Among their aims, the conference organizers hoped “to generate conversations that would link and compare the histories of the women of western North America” (xiv), and this goal serves as the focal point for the collection. Editors Elizabeth Jameson and Sheila McManus explain that “crossing the boundaries of national histories … involves entering unfamiliar territory where all sorts of assumptions may be challenged, including unexamined assumptions about gender, history, and the nations to which we offer allegiance. Choosing to step across those lines means giving up the power of the familiar” (xix). In taking up the challenges of comparative and transnational history, Jameson, McManus, and the sixteen contributors have produced a collection remarkable for its synthesis, iconoclasm, and insight.

To the credit of both the editors and contributors, One Step Over the Line is a tightly integrated ensemble. The editors have arranged the articles into seven thematic sections designed to induce comparison. These sections address the challenges of writing comparative women’s history; the meanings of race and gender in the Canadian and American Wests; the relationship of individual biographies to regional, national, and transnational history; the connections between education, race, and national policy; the experiences of women who crossed the international border; the influence and experiences of women in the International Mine Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union and its Women’s Auxiliary; and pedagogical approaches to teaching the comparative history of women in the North American Wests. Within these sections, the articles have been sequenced to provide contextual material that enhances the reader’s understanding of successive chapters. Susan Armitage’s discussion of gender and race in the Oregon Territory, for example, provides invaluable contextual background for Sylvia Van Kirk’s discussion of the experiences of Charles and Isabella Ross’ interracial family in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; likewise, Laurie Mercier’s analysis of Mine Mill Women’s Auxiliaries during the Cold War sets the scene for Cynthia Loch-Drake’s study of the 1947 Mine Mill strike at Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat.

Editors Jameson and McManus also establish compelling connections between the articles. Their introduction and the synopses opening each section set the historical context, outline central themes, and emphasize important arguments and historiographical issues. These commentaries and the thoughtful sequencing of articles generate a high level of intertextuality. There are meaningful links, for example, between Molly P. Rozum’s and Cheryl Foggo’s (separate) discussions of black women’s experiences in the Canadian and American Wests and Van Kirk’s discussion of the Ross family; there are also themes that recur frequently in the articles, such as the meanings Canadians and Americans have assigned to the West. 

As I read One Step Over the Line, I found myself repeatedly reflecting back on an article by sociologist and historian Charles Tilly. Tilly argued that social historians have two basic aims: reconstitution and connection. On the one hand, he wrote, social historians seek “to reconstitute a round of life as people lived it”; on the other, they attempt “to connect life on the small scale with large social structures and processes.” Tilly asserted that “over the long run … connection must take priority. If social historians devote themselves chiefly to reconstitution, they will produce many bright fragments of dubious comparability and uncertain relationship. If they concentrate on reconstructing rounds of life as people lived them, they will miss the opportunity to address, criticize, and modify general conceptions of historical development.” [1]

One Step Over the Line frequently echoes Tilly’s concerns. In the introduction the editors ask, “How do people’s individual histories, or the histories of daily social life connect with the histories of nation states?” (xix) Near the end of the volume, Margaret Walsh observes that “there are two sets of lenses: the male (and possibly the macro view) and the female (and possibly the micro view), and these need to intersect” (393). When those views do intersect, the extant historiography can be altered in fundamental ways. McManus opines that “women’s historians have always unsettled the past” (29), asserting that women’s histories disturb established narratives or, as Tilly would put it, “modify general conceptions of historical development.”[2] This, as Kathryn Kish Sklar has argued, is one of the great promises of women’s history: integrating the history of the female majority into our narratives holds the potential to change our understanding of all fields of history.[3] The articles in One Step Over the Line hold the potential to recast our understanding of major events and social phenomena in important ways, whether through Helen Raptis’ discussion of Edith Lucas’ efforts to provide correspondence education to evacuated Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during the Second World War or through Cynthia Loch-Drake’s description of how the Medalta Potteries strike changed public attitudes towards organized labour in postwar Alberta. Indeed, the connections between lived experiences and overarching metanarratives are not only explored on a subject-by-subject basis. In separate chapters, Margaret Walsh and Mary Murphy explore pedagogical strategies for connecting women’s experiences with the most prominent narrative themes and theses in Western history. Their focus is on the classroom, but their discussions resonate with meaning for a practising historian. That a volume so intently focused on reconstituting women’s lives concludes with two chapters exploring the connection of women’s experiences to broader historical themes highlights the thoughtful editorial choices made in structuring the collection.

Having emphasized synthesis, it is worth observing that One Step Over the Line is often iconoclastic as well. In part, this iconoclasm is the product of the comparative approach central to the project. In Mary Murphy’s words, “using a comparative approach nudges students to see that history’s ‘unfolding’ is not a natural process, but is one of struggle and choice that can unfold quite differently depending upon the country in which one lives” (422). Human agency, Elizabeth Jameson emphasizes, is responsible for the differences that distinguish the American and Canadian nations (8). The use of comparative history to expose the historically constructed nature of social and political orders is nowhere more apparent than in Sylvia Van Kirk’s examination of the Ross family’s experiences in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Differences in national historical experience, legal systems, and the timing of settlement meant that the Ross children’s interracial heritage had a different impact on their lives, depending upon which side of the border they resided. 

The iconoclasm that typifies One Step Over the Line owes much to the authors’ devotion to questioning received themes, categories, and professional practices. Margaret Walsh captures the spirit of this approach in her pedagogical piece, emphasizing the importance of raising questions in the classroom, even when the evidence to resolve those questions is currently inadequate (401). Throughout the collection, stock Western narratives are challenged. The mythical Wests of young white men, the narrative contrasts often drawn between the “Wild” (American) and “Mild” (Canadian) Wests, the received history of racism in both countries, and the notion of the West as region all receive scrutiny and reconceptualization. The editors also draw attention to the social construction of gender, race, class, and nation-states, arguing that each has “been understood and created in different ways in different times and places … among people with unequal access to resources and power” (xx), an observation that is borne out by many of the articles. Finally, in a remarkably frank historiographical piece, Joan M. Jensen engages in constructive self-scrutiny, reflecting on various impulses – which she terms fantasizing, romanticizing, victimizing, rationalizing, personalizing, and politicizing – that threaten to distort the significance, ideals, ambitions, and even the privacy of the women she studies. 

One Step Over the Line is an important and meaningful addition to the histories of the American and Canadian Wests, and it would serve well as a college or university course reader. While there are some important gaps in chronological and thematic coverage – which the editors acknowledge – the collection’s superb contextualization of events, along with its persuasive challenges to the ideas, themes, and categories prominent in Western history, make it a potentially thought-provoking classroom tool and worthwhile reading for any student of Western history.

 [1] Charles Tilly, “Family History, Social History, and Social Change,” in Family History at the Crossroads: A Journal of Family History Reader, ed. Tamara K. Hareven and Andrejs Plakans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 32021.

[2] Ibid., 321

[3] Nancy Cott, Gerda Lerner, Kathryn Kish Sklar, Ellen Dubois, and Nancy Hewitt, “Considering the State of US Women’s History,” Journal of Women’s History 15, 1 (2003): 147.