Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women’s History
November 4, 2013
Review By Patricia Barkaskas
A primary goal of feminist scholarship and activism is to interrupt assumed notions about gender and to intervene in the naturalization of processes that perpetuate women’s op pression and subordination in patri archal societies. Contemporary feminist historical studies influenced by postcolonial and critical race theory, such as Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Sexuality, and Gender in the Colonial Contest (Routledge, 1995), have also sought to deconstruct discourses of racialization and the construction of hegemonic femininities and masculinities within colonial projects. Situated within a broader context of feminist historical literature, but taking a regional focus, Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women’s History highlights the importance of using a micro-history approach to explore theoretical developments in the field. Of these, constructions of femininity and processes of racialization are the focus.
Unsettled Pasts is a selection of papers drawn from a June 2002 conference held at the University of Calgary. The conference brought together a diverse group of feminists to explore “the connection between gender, place, and the processes that shaped the diversity of experiences in the Canadian west” (2). According to the editors, the collection seeks to illuminate how women negotiated the complicated spaces they occupied, particularly in the context of colonialism and nation building in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia (4). Contributors include academics, writers, and activists from many different walks of life and professional fields.
The breadth of the book is noteworthy: it spans the period from the late nineteenth century to 2002 and in cludes scholarly works, interviews, and personal reminiscences. While the inclusion of so many different women’s stories through such a long period shows a commitment to diversity, it also makes the collection slightly less cohesive than are collected works that cover shorter, more specific time periods. Although at least two of the chapters deal specifically with British Columbia, the regional focus of the book is primarily Alberta. Thematically arranged, Unsettled Pasts moves back and forth chronologically; however, the book is divided into four distinct sections, and a synopsis of each chapter creates relevant links between the specific story being told and the subject of each section. The editors do an excellent job of introducing each chapter and linking it to the overarching themes (the organization of the book and the wide-ranging subject matter make this necessary).
The Canadian “frontier” is not an uncontested masculine or white space in Unsettled Pasts (4). The stories in the book point out that many women were, in fact, negotiating the difficult terrain between the boundaries of gender and “race” in what was, and in many ways remains, a shifting socio-cultural and political landscape. For example, Patricia A. Roome’s examination of Henrietta Muir Edwards’ (of Famous Five fame) life story does not read as a simple tale of success in the west. As Roome notes, Edwards dealt with contested categories of womanhood in her attempts to form relationships with indigenous women on the reserves where she lived. Further, Roome reframes Edwards through an intersectional feminist lens, reconceiving her as an individual struggling within complex systemic contexts that contributed to her unique strategy of resistance and compliance, even while she was unable to escape her location as a white, Christian woman.
One of the most important contri butions this text makes is in documenting indigenous women’s histories. Indigenous women are highlighted as “cultural mediators.” Lesley A. Erickson’s comparative study of the lives of Sara and Louis Riel removes Sara from her brother’s shadow. Sara, who was the first Métis Grey Nun, challenges notions of indigenous actors in settlement and missionization work in Canada. Building on Sylvia Van Kirk’s ground-breaking Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Watson and Dwyer, 1980), Erickson’s chapter reveals that indigenous women continued to occupy vital roles as mediators, bridging cultural divides between indigenous and nonindigenous perspectives that were often amorphous and constantly changing. Cora J. Voyageur’s interviews with Senator Thelma Chalifoux and former chief of the Fort MacKay First Nation, Dorothy MacDonald, in both the first and final sections of the book, are further evidence of the diversity of indigenous women’s experiences and work to make relevant links between the past and the present.
Images of indigenous women in history also emerge from reading colonial sources “against the grain” (101). Kristin Burnett deconstructs representations of indigenous women in the writings of three Methodist missionaries: John Maclean, Egerton Ryerson Young, and John McDougall. Drawing on Adele Perry’s argument in On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (University of Toronto Press, 2001), Burnett argues that depicting indigenous women as unfeminine (111, 114) allowed white women to take a place, at least in the popular imagination of the nation, as the penultimate example of womanhood. This dovetails nicely with Muriel Stanley Venne’s piece on her personal struggle to take up the word “Esquao” as a challenge to the racist, colonial word “Squaw” and as a present-day reminder that indigenous women are strong members of their communities and that their presence will not be forgotten or ignored. Sarah Carter’s contribution explores the implications of the Department of Indian Affairs’ (DIA) attempts to change existing patterns of matrimony and divorce in indigenous communities. Carter’s analysis reveals that sexist and racist policies guided the implementation of marriage laws for indigenous peoples through the dia and contributed to undermining women’s traditional roles and power in their communities.
Carter, Erickson, Roome, and Char have selected essays that reveal how the processes of gendering and racialization intertwine with embodied knowledge and systemic power relations. The resulting collection seeks to address the erasure of women in the past and, as Elaine Leslau Silverman states in her conclusion, draw attention to them in the present, where women’s experiences continue to be undervalued (370). With its postcolonial and intersectional feminist analyses of the past and its underlying commitment to social justice in the present, Unsettled Pasts is a meaningful contribution to the field of women’s history in Canada.