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

Women Caring for Kamloops, 1890-1975

By Andrew Yarmie

Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-61

By Ruth Derksen Siemens, with Sandra Borger

July 8, 2014

Review By Lisa Pasolli

In many ways, Ruth Derksen Siemens’s Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-61 and Andrew Yarmie’s Women Caring for Kamloops, 1890-1975 are very different books. The former is an affectionate history, one that centres on oral histories and photographs, of the many young Mennonite women who worked as domestic servants in Vancouver’s middle- and upper-class homes. In the latter, Yarmie has dug into local archives and newspapers to write a more academically oriented history of women’s voluntary organizations in Kamloops. Both books, though, are local histories engaged in similar projects: recovering and recognizing the often-invisible work of caregiving, domestic, and voluntary labour done by women.

The daughters of Daughters in the City are women and girls who settled with their families in various parts of western Canada during two waves of Mennonite immigration: the first, in the 1920s, as refugees from Russia; the second arriving from Europe after the Second World War. Seeking to make money to help pay off family debts, these young women moved to Vancouver and took up positions as domestic servants. Daughters in the City focuses in particular on the two “Girls’ Homes” that became the centre of social and community life for these Mädchen (maidens), the Mary Martha Home and the Bethel Home. The oral interviews collected by Siemens and her research assistant Sandra Borger provide fascinating glimpses into the Mädchen’s efforts to navigate the uncertainties and unknowns of the “evil city.” But the centrepiece of the book is undoubtedly the voluminous photographs, which offer a rich visual history of life inside the Girls’ Homes and the ways in which the Mädchen sustained each other with friendships, leisure activities, and shared workloads.

In Women Caring for Kamloops, Yarmie highlights women’s roles in five of Kamloops’s voluntary organizations: the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Royal Inland Hospital, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Red Cross, the Council of Women, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. The women who were part of these organizations provided crucial health, educational, cultural, and social services to Kamloops citizens over several decades and, as Yarmie argues throughout, they were just as crucial to the development of this frontier town as were the pioneering men often given more credit in historical narratives. While this is largely a history that celebrates women’s contributions, Yarmie also does not romanticize their work. He points out that these middle-class women often operated with racist and class-based assumptions that precluded them from offering the same level of care to all members of the community, particularly to Indigenous peoples and immigrants.

Both books address important themes in women’s history, though Yarmie does so much more explicitly by rooting his analysis in the pertinent historiography. He draws in particular on scholarship around maternal feminism in the early twentieth-century. The Kamloops women who worked in voluntary organizations, Yarmie shows, negotiated the potential tensions between their public and private lives by translating their “natural” caregiving roles into the public sphere, and in this respect were part of a much larger British Columbian and Canadian story. His analysis of women’s organizations in the latter part of the twentieth-century could benefit from the same kind of scholarly framework (the work of Margaret Little and Wendy McKeen comes to mind). Like their foremothers earlier in the century, Kamloops women in the 1960s and 1970s were part of a larger story about feminist activism, and particularly about the intersectional complexities of women’s experiences of motherhood, paid work, poverty, and domestic violence. Attention to this wider context would enhance Yarmie’s somewhat thin analysis of the YWCA in the postwar years, for example.

The most significant value of local histories such as these is that they complicate generally accepted narratives about women’s history. In tracing a strong lineage of women’s voluntary work over more than eighty years, Yarmie shows (as many historians have also done) that women’s activism was not in fact in retreat between the two “waves” of feminism. Likewise, in highlighting the experiences of Mennonite women, Siemens helps to deepen our understanding of the lives of immigrant women who were always expected to work despite the dominant prescriptions against women’s wage-earning. In challenging the ways we think about women’s place in society, and in adding to what we know about immigrant experiences, these books together paint another small corner of the rich, varied, and complex portrait of BC women.
 

Women Caring for Kamloops, 1890-1975
Andrew Yarmie
Kamloops: Textual Studies in Canada and Kamloops Museum and Archives, 2013. 235 pp. $19.95 paper

Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-61
Ruth Derksen Siemens (with Sandra Borger)
Vancouver: Fernwood Press, 2013. 93 pp $24.95 paper.