Canadian Women Writers

Canadian themes play a large part in Canadian women's literature. Key phrases describing Canada reflect a feminine sensibility, and these are reflected in the writings of Canada's women. Those phrases, such as cultural mosaic, community of communities and federal-provincial cooperation, accentuate relationships, which are often considered the domain of women.

Canada's strengths, such as its role in peacekeeping among other countries, its gift for compromise and its tendency toward accommodation also have a feminine tone. Canada's ability to bolster relationships among its various ethnic groups also reflects its feminine side. Canadian female writers have picked up on this tone, expressing the process of Canada's social and political development through their writings.

Frances Brooke wrote the first Canadian novel, The History of Emily Montague, in 1769. She describes the connection between land and women: Both areas are open for male colonization. When her novel was published, Canada was a colony, part of the holdings of British North America. Brooke moved to Quebec City in 1763 with her husband, John Brooke, who held a political post. Britain had recently won the colony in a war with France. The colony was rife with political tensions, a theme that is reflected in Brooke's novel. Brooke sided with the English in her political views.

Brooke's novel uses its characters as a manifestation of Canada's political issues. One of her characters is unprepared for life in Canada, reflecting how standard views of human nature are poorly adapted for the harsh environment of Canada. She uses a metaphor to demonstrate how the British takeover of New France is not a recipe for success: She shows how a husband's dominant attitude and his wife's total submission do not contribute to a good marriage.

In the following century (1838), Anna Brownell Jameson published Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. The three-volume diary covers her nine-month stay in Canada with her estranged husband, the attorney general of Upper Canada. A few months before the book's publication, the colonies in Upper and Lower Canada had rebelled against Britain. The book has a political undertone, referencing the British administration's abuse and mismanagement of the colony.

Jameson's writings about women mirror the call for self-rule in Upper Canada. She writes enviously about the Native American women, who are expected to be self-reliant and hardy. She bemoans the prevalent colonial view of women as weak and refined. Those socially expected characteristics are unfitting for the tasks that pioneer women must perform in order to survive. She calls upon women to develop self-knowledge and self-reliance and to engage in mutual help and pity.

In the 1900s, Canada at large struggled with Imperialism versus emancipation. Sara Jeannette Duncan, in her 1904 novel The Imperialist, highlights the relationship between men and women. The growing women's struggle for equality parallels the country's attempts to loosen Britain's imperialistic hold.

As Canada's population expanded to the prairies, the fight for women's rights grew. Nellie McClung, a critic of many social ills, wrote extensively in support of women's rights. In the first few decades of the 1900s, she campaigned for women's suffrage. She proclaimed that if women were given a voice in decision-making, national policy would direct public funds toward internal improvements instead of war.

Ethel Wilson, a writer who published from the 1930s through the 1960s, illustrated Canada's continued strivings for independence. Her books' characters are caught between influences of others, as Canada is caught between British and American influences. She shows how Canada seeks to discover its unique qualities, distinct from the identities of other nations.

By the mid 1960s, Canada had gained surer footing. Margaret Laurence's novels echo Canada's new stage of independence by placing women's experiences at the forefront. She does not exhibit a need to argue policy and politics; she is confident in women's individual perspectives.

Well-known Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who began writing in the late 1960s, drew parallels between Canada and the psyches of her protagonists. She notes that Canada, like women, often postures a victim mentality. Those who refuse to take responsibility for their lives can always blame someone else for their problems.

Atwood notes Canada's nationalist struggles and colonial attitude. Each of her heroines starts out by viewing herself as a victim of male domination but eventually recognizes her part in accepting society's proscribed roles. Likewise, she believes that Canada has overly identified with the role of a colony subject to a ruler.

A later writer, Margaret Lawrence, dwells on the tension between independence and relatedness. This theme, too, draws on Canada's ambivalence about its growing independence. Even after the British rule was long gone, Canadians continued to embrace the British influence.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Dominion of Women: The Personal and the Political in Canadian Women's Literature
Wayne Fraser.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Doing Gender: Franco-Canadian Women Writers of the 1990s
Paula Ruth Gilbert; Roseanna L. Dufault.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001
Writing in the Feminine: Feminism and Experimental Writing in Quebec
Karen Gould.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
Working in Women's Archives: Researching Women's Private Literature and Archival Documents
Helen M. Buss; Marlene Kadar.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001
Pre- and Post-Mortem: Regendering and Serial Killing in (Helene) Rioux, (Anne) Dandurand, (Claire) De, and (Margaret) Atwood
Gilbert, Paula Ruth; Irvine, Lorna M.
American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 1999
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms
Kathryn VanSpanckeren; Jan Garden Castro.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1988
New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism
Greta M. K. McCormick Coger.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Ethnic Reproduction and the Amniotic Deep: Joy Kogawa's Obasan
Tourino, Christina.
Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 2003
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Narrative in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard
Susan Knutson.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000
Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World
Rhoda B. Nathan.
Greenwood Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Sisters and Survivors: Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie"
Women Writers of Children's Literature
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Lucy Maud Montgomery: 1874-1940" begins on p. 82
Woman as Artist: Papers in Honour of Marsha Hanen
Christine Mason Sutherland; Beverly Jean Rasporich.
University of Calgary Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Images of Winnipeg's North End: Fictionalizing Space for the Ethnic and Female 'Other'"
Hearts of Stone: Quarrying the Canadian Shield in Recent Canadian Women's Writing
Stovel, Nora Foster.
International Fiction Review, Vol. 33, No. 1-2, January 2006
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature
Barbara Frey Waxman.
Greenwood Press, 1990
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