Women Pioneers in Canadian Sociology: The Effects of a Politics of Gender and a Politics of Knowledge

By Eichler, Margrit | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Women Pioneers in Canadian Sociology: The Effects of a Politics of Gender and a Politics of Knowledge


Eichler, Margrit, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract: This article examines the life histories of ten anglophone Canadian pioneer women sociologists: Helen Abell, Grace Anderson, Jean Burnet, Eleanor Cebotarev, Kathleen Herman, Helen McGill Hughes, Thelma McCormack, Helen Ralston, Aileen Ross and Dorothy Smith. All were born before 1930, encountered significant sexism, and found jobs very easily. This pattern is placed into the context of a politics of gender and a politics of knowledge. Politics of gender in the institutional context and in family roles resulted in disadvantages, while the effect of the women's movement led to solidarity among women sociologists and eventual improvements in their situation. The simultaneous emergence of the women's movement and the Canadianization movement led to a politics of knowledge which proved advantageous for both. Nevertheless, the sociological canon so far has not included women pioneers -- the author needed to conduct interviews since almost no published information existed about most of these important soci ologists prior to this paper.

Resume: Le present article se penche surl'histoire vecue de dix pionnieres canadiennes anglophones dans le domaine de la sociologie: Helen Abell, Grace Anderson, Jean Burnet Eleanor Cebotarev, Kathleen Herman, Helen McGill Hughes, Thelma McCormack, Helen Ralston, Aileen Ross et Dorothy Smith. Nees avant 1930, elles se sont toutes heurtees un sexisme marque ce qui ne les a pas empechees de trouver tres facilement du travail. Le phenomene est mis en perspective au vu d'une politique du genre et d'une politique de la connaissance. La politique du genre dans le cadre des institutions et des responsabilites familiales s'est traduite par des handicaps, tandis que le mouvement feministe a engendre une solidarite des femmes sociologues et, finalement, une amelioration de leur situation. L'emergence simultanee du mouvement feministe et de celui de canadianisation a engendre une politique de la connaissance quis'est revelee avantageuse pour les Canadiennes. Neanmoins, jusqu'a present, les pionnieres brillent par leur e xclusion du pantheon sociologique. L'absence quasi totale de donnees prealablement publiees sur ces importantes sociologues a d'ailleurs amene l'auteure du present article devoir effectuer des entrevues.

Introduction [1]

In reviewing the status of the women founders of sociology and social theory, Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley argue that the women have been "written out" of our history, rather than having been invisible. Being written out suggests that they were once seen as a presence in the community and that they were subsequently erased from its record (1998:2-3). This "politics of erasure" is premised on two interrelated processes: a politics of gender and a politics of knowledge.

While their account deals with the issue at a time before sociology was established as a professional discipline in Canada, their questions are relevant to understanding the position of women pioneers within Canadian sociology. This paper asks how a politics of gender and knowledge affected some of the early anglophone women sociologists in Canada.

When approaching histories of Canadian sociology we find little about women. I therefore decided to use a life history approach. Goetting (1995:9-12) identifies several advantages of this approach: it fills knowledge gaps (sorely needed in this instance); it provides a window on organizational structures by making informal power relations visible; it is a tool for interpreting the intersection of micro- and macro-levels of social order; and, when dealing with women's biography, it can contribute to the correction of the social production of obscurity. Life history is thus a critically helpful way of understanding our gendered world.

I wanted to focus on the earliest group of anglophone women sociologists and thus chose birthdate and position as my selection criteria. The subjects of my study had to have been born prior to 1930 and formally trained in sociology.

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