By Lara Campbell
With the writing of women’s history entering its fourth decade, it is more important than ever to recognize the value of this history. Women’s history began in the late 1960s, as part of two important trends in Canadian society. The development of the women’s liberation movement politicized feminists and drove them to discover and celebrate the historical community of women. And the historical profession, which had long studied Canada’s political and economic history, was energized by younger scholars who emphasized the importance of social history, the details of everyday life, and the experiences of the majority of the population rather than historical elites.
Women’s history challenges us to think differently about what we consider historically important. Take, for example, the question of periodization. How do we decide on the important turning points in history? These have typically been defined by military or political events: pre- or post-Confederation, for example, or the impact of the Second World War. But what if historians highlighted those events which fundamentally altered the lives of women? The introduction of the birth control pill, for example, or the right of women to own property, or the legalization of abortion. Thinking this way reminds us that the ways in which we mark time and chronology are always artificial.
And what was the impact of historical change on aboriginal women, immigrant women, or poor women? The power differentials between women sometimes outweigh the ties that bind women together by gender, and women’s historians have rightly pointed out that women’s historical experiences and identities are rooted in race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and ability, among others. Can we argue that winning federal suffrage in 1918 was a crucial turning point for all women when aboriginal women waited for that same right to be fully extended until 1960, and Japanese Canadian women until 1948? Perhaps a major turning point for African-Canadian women is Emancipation Day (August 1, 1834), the date that slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire.
Women’s history has also demanded that we rethink traditional historical topics, and that we value the development of new ones. For example, traditional histories of work often omitted women because women’s domestic labour, such as childcare, housework, and caregiving, was unpaid and not understood as work. Similarly, feminist historians pointed out that while formal politics excluded women, women have had a long history of political activism. From Jewish housewives in Toronto in the 1930s who boycotted grocers for selling over-priced milk and meat, to rural women in 19th-century Prince Edward Island who fought off landlords with axes, pitchforks, and occasionally guns, women have long protested injustice, argued with authorities, or fought to feed their families. And it is women’s historians who remind us that the everyday event is of cultural value. Mothering, domestic life, childbirth rituals, and friendships are worthy of study and historical reflection.
Finally, women’s history itself is political. By understanding differences and continuities in ideas about gender over time, we can talk back to pundits who make generalizations about the ways in which women and men “should” act, live, or feel. Without this historical consciousness, it remains difficult to counter prevailing myths about gender. Those who claim that it is natural for women to “stay at home” and men to go to work, for example, conveniently ignore the long-standing labour of poor, working class, and immigrant women in the labour force; those who claim that it is simply “natural” for men and women to marry ignore the changing role of marriage and the myriad ways that women (and men) have sought sexual and domestic alternatives over time.
Women’s history remains fundamentally important and a constantly changing and dynamic field. Historians attentive to how history shaped gender roles and expectations have led the way in looking at how men and women, and masculinity and femininity, are historical categories shaped in relation to each other. In addition, they have asked us to examine how norms and beliefs about gender have become embedded in the world around us, and have consequently produced restrictive meanings about gender which limit our lives today. Women’s history helps us to understand our past and but also to look forward, toward a better future.
Lara Campbell is an assistant professor of women’s studies at Simon Fraser University.