Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History by Joan Sangster
Joan Sangster, one of Canada’s preeminent labour feminist historians, recently compiled a highly useful collection of some of her seminal texts under the title, Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History. This prolific scholar, currently teaching in Trent University’s department of history, provides readers with an insightful synthesis of major trends and developments in Canadian women’s history from its inception in the 1970s until today. Through Sangster’s collection of essays, we come to appreciate the intellectual journey undertaken by one of the leaders in the field, who has made her mark on the discipline by consistently combining historical materialism with feminist analyses and the latest historiographical advances.
Through Feminist Eyes contains a strong pedagogical element, a relief to graduate students looking to navigate the field and perhaps also professors trying to explain the hybrid influences shaping Canadian women’s history to their students. In the introduction, Sangster describes the multiple international currents shaping women’s history writing in Canada, “emanating from the United States, Britain, and France (the last more so in Quebec)”. Historians have drawn upon these historiographical tendencies to further analyze questions of gender paired with the salient themes of Canadian history, namely patterns of social and economic development, migration, and the nation-state and nationalisms (p.3). In recent years, the history of the country’s distinct brand of colonialism has taken on greater significance, as well as “scholarship on empire, and comparative research on British white settler societies” (p.2). Here like elsewhere, women’s history has been infused with a highly political edge, leading to much contentious debate, the latter, according to Sangster, less openly conducted in Canada due to a certain “debataphobia”.
Staking her claim in the scholarly discussion surrounding women’s experiences, Sangster has had a “dual devotion to women’s and labour history” since the early days of graduate school, a commitment continuing to the present day despite shifting theories and methodologies (p.2). In order to assist the reader in discerning the author’s intellectual trajectory, Through Feminist Eyes contains highly useful opening chapters to six sections, situating the ten chapters historiographically. From the opening essay, “The 1907 Bell Telephone Strike: Organizing Women Workers”, Sangster stresses women’s agency in the face of a patriarchal, paternalist culture, emphasizing their role in leftist organizing. Similarly, the second piece, “The Communist Party and the Woman Question, [End Page 258] 1922–1929”, pays particular attention to women’s contribution within Marxist political organizations and the importance of ethnicity in social activism. Written during an expansion of socialist-feminist organizing and the push towards racial inclusion on the ground, this essay reflected developments within the Canadian women’s movement during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The tendency to remain influenced by grassroots activism has remained consistent throughout this historian’s long and productive career.
The following section, entitled “Manufacturing Consent in Peterborough”, is a collection of three pieces analyzing notions of social control and capitalist hegemony. Throughout the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Sangster conducted extensive oral interviews in order to get to the heart of unequal social relations in small-town Ontario, where bosses and workers often knew each other personally. Gender and economic hierarchy were central to the ideology of paternalism in the first essay, “The Softball Solution”. Plant managers employed the notion of the protection of women to justify the sexual division of labour within the factory, cultivated a “homelike” atmosphere to stem unionization, and used sports to create a sense of company loyalty. The second piece, “‘Pardon Tales’ From Magistrate’s Court: Women, Crime and the Court in Peterborough County, 1920–1950”, draws upon similar tropes of resistance to paternalism, this time demonstrating how women utilized gender stereotypes to prove their innocence, circumventing, but also relying upon and reinforcing, the magistrate’s definitions of proper gender roles. Finally, the last section represents the incorporation of poststructuralist analyses into Sangster’s repertoire. In “Telling our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History”, she questions the “authenticity” of women’s memories, without discounting the validity of this source for women’s history or the importance of a “feminist materialist context” and the concept of a “knowable” past (p.234).
In the following section, “Foucault, Feminism and Postcolonialism”, Sangster dedicates two pieces to Aboriginal women’s history. Rare is an historian in Canada who has such wide-ranging focuses, especially in a country where scholars tend to pay more attention to gender and class than to race. In “Criminalizing the Colonized”, she points to the relationship between Native women and the law and the double-standards operating against them leading to high rates of incarceration. By analyzing the role of white women in the colonial enterprise in “Constructing the ‘Eskimo’ Wife”, Sangster drives a key, albeit nuanced, point home in the third essay: there have been substantial differences amongst Canadian women, where Euro-Canadian women, especially those of middle-class background, have been active participants and beneficiaries of colonialism, contributing to the Orientalist, sexualized image of the Aboriginal woman, in this case, through their travel writings (p.329).
In a related section, “The Embodied Experience”, Sangster again draws on reflections combining Foucault and feminism, but, true to form, applies materialist analyses and human agency in “meaning making” to the bodily experience of women workers (p.381). In the first essay on women’s letters to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, she underlines the importance women placed on their own experiences when calling for socioeconomic and political change. In the last essay, entitled “Making a Fur Coat: Women, the Labouring Body, and Working-Class History”, Sangster maintains that the exploitation of fur, arguably a symbol of the Canadian nation, was undertaken at the expense of Aboriginal and working-class bodies, pointing to the dual forces at work in the nation-building process – capitalism and colonialism. [End Page 259]
This kind of work will hopefully inspire the current and the next generation of feminist historians to push the boundaries of the discipline by further exploring women’s role in sustaining or resisting colonialism. Indeed, much historical research has yet to be done regarding the relationship between gender, race and the colonial enterprise in Canada. In sum, Joan Sangster’s Through Feminist Eyes is a thought-provoking overview of Canadian women’s and gender history and will be of particular use to younger scholars, looking to understand the development of women’s history in Canada and the influences and questions shaping the field.