Hidden in plain sight

July 20, 2017

Stories you may not know about women’s history in Canada


This article is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th anniversary. Watch for pieces tied to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about women’s history in Canada is that the women were busy at home, hidden away from the wars, politics and major events that traditionally fill the pages of history books. Of course, people like Laura Secord and the Famous Five might spring to mind, but they may be exceptions.

“At one time, historians weren’t sure whether it was possible to write a history of women because either women weren’t out there or there was no documentation about what women did,” explains Dr. Carolee Pollock, assistant professor in history. “Back in the day, we wrote history on the basis of papers that were collected from politicians and generals.” She adds that while some middle-class women would have left papers and journals, a woman would have to be considered elite for her material to be archived.

“When I tend to think about things, I’m more interested in the ordinary person and what the ordinary person’s life was like than I am in a specific person who transforms things,” says Carolee.

But by the end of the 20th century, statements like “how are we going to write women’s history?” became “it’s not possible to write history without women.” Carolee acknowledges that stories of the unremitting labour and spirit of ordinary women throughout Canada’s history may not be as easy to find as stories about notable men changing Canada’s trajectory. But, she says, those stories are out there—you just have to look a little harder for them.

Here are just a few stories of Canadian women you may not know about, and just a handful of the incredible stories Carolee has been studying over the years:

Women’s roles in the fur trade

When you think about the fur trade back in the 1600s, you might picture rugged men carrying supplies across this great land, hunting and trapping animals for pelts, and trading their goods at outposts run by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But Indigenous women  were integral to the fur trade. The women were translators, cultural interpreters, guides, teachers, gatherers of food and processors of the furs. Through alliances and marriage arrangements with European men, they shared their skills and knowledge of Indigenous hunting and trading networks. However, entering into these arrangements meant that they surrendered the level of autonomy they held in their villages to adapt to patriarchal, European life.

By the 1800s, trading companies began to discourage these marriages unless the unions helped forge connections with new groups and expand operations, and men who retired from the trade often returned to Europe or moved to another trading post, sometimes abandoning their wives and children. The women lost their social standing in the post (and many of mixed ancestry found it difficult to integrate into an Indigenous group). Indigenous and mixed ancestry women faced further loss in status once European women began coming over to live in the Northwest.

Women of authority

In looking at church documents from the end of the 19th century in Quebec, historians discovered an uptick in the number of women who entered the Catholic Church.

“If you were ambitious or interested in doing something useful in the world, the Catholic Church in Quebec ran hospitals, schools, orphanages and social services,” says Carolee. The only other alternative was marriage. “If you entered the religious order, you could continue your education and rise through the ranks to become Mother Superior. There were actually career opportunities in the religious order that there weren’t elsewhere for women in Quebec during that period.”

At the same time in English Canada, schooling became compulsory—and also publicly funded. There were concerns about the increased burden on taxpayers (better teachers meant higher salaries) and about improvements to the quality of teaching. That problem was solved, however, when school boards determined they could pay women half as much as men and get the same quality of teacher. They also introduced graded classrooms, so female teachers wouldn’t have to deal out physical punishment to the older, bigger students.

“By the end of the 19th century, women formed the vast majority of teachers, especially at the lower grades,” says Carolee. “We don’t know their names, but they’re crucially important to the development of an education system that we consider to be absolutely essential to the modern world.”

Women during the war

During the First World War, the “home front” was a marketing term intended to enlist the participation of people who weren’t fighting on the frontlines. It encompassed the contributions of the women at home—working in munitions factories, filling in men’s jobs and volunteering their support for soldiers all while maintaining life at home.

Nurses were also crucial to the war effort—and were the first women to serve in the Canadian Forces. They were also the first women in Canada to vote—along with the mothers, wives and sisters of servicemen—before any other Canadian woman.

By the time the Second World War came along, women were drawn into the services, even forming the Canadian Women’s Army Corp., the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

These are just a few of the many stories of Canadian women changing history in small steps—from the Indigenous women who first called this land home to the first wave of immigrant women surviving on the prairies, those who joined the labour force and those who fought (and continue to fight) for equal rights.

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