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Rebel Women of the West Coast: Their Triumphs, Tragedies and Lasting Legacies

By Rich Mole

Review By Rose Fine-Meyer

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 164-66

Rebel Women of the West Coast comprises stories about individual women who, through their talent, perseverance, and determination, were able to overcome patriarchal systems designed to keep them out of professional organizations. Author Rich Mole has created a celebratory book for the general public but has done so by constructing the narratives within traditional masculine structures of understandings.

Each chapter of Rebel Women examines women in various fields, including “Rebel Doctor, Rebel Lawyer, and Rebel Scientist.” The book begins with a definition of “rebel” as “a person who resists any authority, control or tradition,” but then proceeds to provide narratives of women who are anything but (7). These women are gifted, talented, and determined individuals with an innate ability to work within the traditional systems that rejected them. For example, Mary Richardson married a man “a mere stranger a few hours before” only to fulfill her missionary dream to travel to unknown territories (11). Dr. Margaret (Dixie) Ray used television in the 1950s to promote her work in science, and Irene Baird got the scoop for a novel about the life of unemployed men during the Depression by masquerading as a nurse in order to accompany a doctor on his rounds. These women had strong characters and demonstrated great skill at negotiating through the discriminatory societies in which they lived in order to achieve personal goals. They knew that if they were viewed as too radical their dreams of success would not have been possible.

The stories begin in the 19th century and move through to modern times. All the women publicly and privately challenged the dominant male society, and an “unscrupulous and manipulative” media (a common theme for the author) to achieve success. The women were outspoken, tough-minded, and hardworking, taking risks to improve their lives. Rich Mole presents these stories within a recurring theme: a woman is disadvantaged but has a dream. To achieve her dream, she faces many challenges but finds success; however, in the end, it comes at a cost. This “cost” creates something contradictory within the book: on the one hand it is a celebration of women’s accomplishments, but on the other, it includes reflections that undercut the women’s achievements. For example, Abigail Duniway became a teacher despite having “less than a year’s formal education.” The author adds, “Obviously she owed her career to the frontier environment rather than her credentials” (32). Later in the book, the author presents Bethenia Owens-Adair, “Rebel Doctor,” who, despite her professional success, marries later in her career. She sustains her relationship despite her husband’s disastrous financial schemes, and the story ends reflecting on her work to support eugenic laws in Oregon in which women became victims of sterilization. Mole notes, “In the end, Bethenia’s legacy was one of tragedy. Through her zealous actions, this champion of gender equity actually helped sabotage the rights of hundreds of Oregon women” (62).

Is Mole suggesting that women who challenge traditional trajectories and demand gender equity risk great personal or professional loss? Women in the book, according to the author, create their own troubles, by marrying the wrong man or turning away professional opportunities or personal relationships. Bethenia Owens had received an offer of financial assistance for her education from a benefactor, but her pride and independence made her turn down the offer, thus subjecting her to “years of penny-pinching drudgery” (49). In the chapter on Grace McCarthy, “Rebel Politician,” the author notes that the 1940s was “an era when few women ran anything beyond a vacuum cleaner or washing machine” (105). This statement comes as a surprise after the previous chapter, which acknowledges how women successfully worked in aircraft factories during the war.

Although Rebel Women of the West Coast begins with a genuine objective to celebrate the achievements of independent women, it leaves the reader troubled. Current scholarship in history examines women’s contributions to society within altered frameworks that reflect on gendered hierarchies of authority and power. Women intersect with all parts of society in an interconnected world, but chronicling their stories requires alternate interpretations that allow for their unique lived experiences.

Rebel Women of the West Coast: Their Triumphs, Tragedies and Lasting Legacies
by Rich Mole
Surrey/Victoria: Heritage House 2010. 144 pp. $9.95 paper