New Women for God: Canadian Presbyterian Women & India Missions, 1876-1914 // Review
History, we increasingly hear, has become fragmented - broken up into separate subdisciplines like working-class history, women's history, urban history or family history - and unmoored from the secure chronology of political events, even from material reality. (f.1) There is certainly a growing amount of research in all these areas, informed often by particular theoretical approaches and methodological preoccupations, published in specialized journals and sometimes using language that only the initiated can follow. Yet the idea that this delving into new areas of social history leads necessarily to fragmentation seems to me a misguided criticism. In this review essay I look at some of the major books published on women's history in Canada since 1986, focusing on those that deal in one way or another with women's work. In my discussion of these books I hope to show how research into women's past and the workings of gender in Canadian society is as likely to lead to a new kind of synthesis as to the creation of a separate and inward-looking sub-discipline.
I was initially asked to write this review in 1987. Had I done so, the task would have been considerably easier. There were about 10 books then that dealt with some aspect of women's work. The vibrancy of Canadian women's history, and my foolishness in procrastinating, are clear in the number published since then. Between 1987 and 1993 around 30 full-length books that touch on women's work have been published by practising historians. A further 10 or so written by academics from other disciplines deal with some aspect of the history of women and their labour, paid or otherwise. As well, large numbers of more popular biographies, collections of reminiscences or journalistic accounts of women's past have appeared. In addition to such book-length treatments of specific aspects of women's lives, there are now around 20 collections of articles dealing with increasingly specific themes in women's past, and most touching on work, as well as two major syntheses of women's experience - one dealing with Canada as a whole, the other with Quebec. And new research is constantly appearing in a diverse range of academic journals. (f.2) I limit my discussion here to some of the monographs that have appeared between 1986 and early 1993.
There is now a solid body of knowledge for mounting courses in Canadian women's history or adding an historical component to women's studies courses. Equally important, there is now sufficient information to integrate a consideration of women's experience into general survey courses or seminars on more specialized subjects as well as into syntheses of Canadian history. (f.3) Yet the importance of this work goes beyond the growing accumulation of facts. In reflecting upon how to explain women's past, feminist historians and sociologists have had to deal with broader theoretical approaches that seek to integrate women's experience into our ways of looking at the present and the past. In grappling with how to explain women's oppression and women's agency in the past, in working out how to conceive of a society so that half its population is not ignored, much of this work offers the potential for a new kind of synthesis in history. Increasingly the best books in women's history draw on insights from disciplines other than history, as well as from "other" areas of history - political economy, and law, economics, urban, labour, immigration, family, and political history. (f.4) In so doing they offer new ways of enriching those fields and of enlarging rather than narrowing our historical knowledge.
What form that synthesis will take is not clear. Writing about women in Canada's past seems poised at the point of a major shift. Most of the book-length studies that have appeared between 1986 and 1993 were written by what could be viewed as the first cohort, or perhaps even generation, of women's historians practising and publishing in Canada. …