Rural Women’s Health
April 8, 2014
Review By Megan J. Davies
This volume is a rare and important collection of groundbreaking work on a topic too often ignored in Canadian academia. I was delighted when I was asked to review this collection, simply to ensure that it would find a place on my bookshelves. And I was equally pleased to find old “friends” in its pages — academic colleagues, community research partners, and unknown scholars whose work has informed my own research on rural women in British Columbia. There are twenty-two chapters in all, in five sub-sections: Research, Policy, and Action; Health and the Environment; Gender-Based Violence; Population Health, Health Promotion, and Public Health; Theorizing Rurality and Gender. Reading Rural Women’s Health is like attending a three-day conference where every second speaker makes you re-think your approach, your suppositions, and your understandings of the topic on hand. Truly, the editors are to be commended for producing a volume that both communicates critical scholarly findings and fosters research and activist collaborations.
Although a historical image of the quintessential Prairie women — poke-bonnets, wagons and horses — adorns the book cover, I found little history inside. Instead, we are presented with the work of psychologists, sociologists, geographers, and anthropologists, set alongside experiential perspectives from dieticians, community care workers, nurses, patients, and mothers. The blend of theoretical and experiential perspectives, and the presentation of a diversity of rural women across the spectrum of ethnicity, age, and regions are key strengths of the book, and make it a valued teaching resource. And there are important contributions from key scholars from outside Canada, deepening the book’s insights into the wellbeing of women from rural and remote regions. A reader in British Columbia will find many points of comparison and intersection here.
Such richness suggests celebration, but it is evident that the editors see much cause for concern. The high water mark of research and policy interest in rural women’s health in this country was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, funding cutbacks have decimated promising research programs and deprived rural women of much-needed access to health services. The Canadian universities where the study of rural women’s health is a vital, live, thing can today be counted on the fingers of one hand: University of Northern British Columbia, Regina, Guelph, and Memorial. British Columbia is well represented with a total of seven authors from the province.
Urban Canadians (and there are a lot of us) have difficulty understanding the ramifications of mental health services or prenatal care being two hours drive from our front door, and this book serves the useful purpose of making us see the world from the rural perspective. For scholars of British Columbia, this volume is an important introduction to our remote and rural regions — the vast pieces of the province that we fly over or utilize as a seasonal playground (always in search of a decent cup of coffee) — and to a rural mindset and way of life. I would like to have seen more work on indigenous women, central to the rural story in Canada, but acknowledge limitations of space. And, clearly, this book is much more than a typical academic presentation. It is a political statement about the loss of wellbeing — the cutting off of state support from a way of life that our federal government likes to portray in nostalgic “Canadiana” moments. One imagines the editors, not at the computer keyboard, but splitting and stacking firewood, ordering seeds in the dead of winter, carrying the groceries in from the car. They know, and they care, and their passion ignites the volume.
My criticism of this book sounds slightly absurd: Why is it a book? Booklover that I am, I do not think it should be a book at all. I cannot help but think that Rural Women will inevitably fall short of the aspirations of many of its authors, especially the ones located outside the academy. Picture the volume that I have described as a website replete with links to statistical data, art, seed catalogues, photographs, audio and video interview clips, blogs, and places to create petitions and upload links and documents. I read recently about “citizen science,” a process where American academic scientists are calling on the general public for research assistance, in one case, in mapping the impact of fracking on the Pennsylvania environment. Here the distance between the academic and the activist is potentially narrowed. One of the great twentieth-century tragedies for rural Canadian women was the demise of Women’s Institutes as a critical source of rural female solidarity and civil engagement. Imagine pairing this book and twenty-first century technologies to recreate “The Institute” — as it was known to countless women in rural and remote areas of the country — in virtual form, fostering community, deeper and wider understandings between rural women and scholars who care, and a strong public call for funding to address the rural healthcare “deficiencies” so clearly outlined in this book.
Rural Women’s Health
Beverly D. Leipert, Belinda Leach, and Wilfreda E. Thurston, editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 472 pp. $39.95 paper