Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Working [on Imperial] Families: Bettina Bradbury's Imperial Re(turn)

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Working [on Imperial] Families: Bettina Bradbury's Imperial Re(turn)

Article excerpt

When I returned to Calgary after giving a version of this paper at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association this past May in St. Catherines, I opened my office door to discover a copy of Bettina Bradbury's Working Families resting on my desk. In my absence, my colleague Tom Brown, who, like Bettina has just retired, bequeathed me his copy of this thoughtful and terrain-shifting study. I was reminded of Tom's generosity as I began to revise this paper for Labour/Le Travail and I share this recollection here as a way to thank him for his kindness and for his unexpected help in bolstering my assertion that Bettina is best known for the award-winning study that I found on my desk. To be certain, Working Families: Age, Gender, and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montreal originally published in English in 1993, in French in 1995, and then reprinted again in English in 1996 and 2007, continues to influence students of Canadian and Quebec, family and labour, women's and gender history. (1) An unintended consequence of this focus on Working Families, however, has meant that Bettina's more recent work on imperial families, and the important historiographical contributions she has made to the fields of gender and empire history through that research, have been overshadowed.

By tracing Bettina's shift from Working Families to working on imperial families I hope to illustrate that individual family histories and their transimperial kin as well as the politics of their daily lives not only anchor Bettina's imperial turn, but also mark a continuity between her earliest and most recent research. (2) Such a focus seems fitting, especially as Bettina plans her departure from Rusholme Road and imminent return to New Zealand. I begin by highlighting how Bettina's most recent monograph, Wife to Widow, especially the framing of that project, was inspired, in part, by international feminist historiographies of empire. I suggest that this not only led Bettina to situate Montreal as part and parcel of the wider history of nineteenth-century British colonialism, but also led Bettina to her current projects that consider the political struggles, personal perils, and the predicaments of empire faced by colonists in the Cape Colony, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada over the long-nineteenth century. (3)

Following the publication of Working Families, Bettina turned her attention to questions of marriage and widowhood in Montreal, the industrializing city that she knows so well. That study--Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal--the bulk of which was written while I was a graduate student at York University, traces how two cohorts of women who married in the 1820s and the 1840s, respectively, navigated their lives, first as wives and then later, as widows. It focused, Bettina writes, on the "negotiations and renegotiations of patriarchy in women's individual lives, in the laws that framed marriage and widowhood, and in the politics of the period." (4) As Bettina recently explained at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at the University of Toronto this past summer, this project had stemmed, in part, from her dissatisfaction with how historians were using quantitative data. Rather than use such calculations to merely identify historical trends, Bettina explained that she sought to analyze what such data can teach us about the lives of individual historical actors and how those lives intersected with larger historical processes. (5) Whether lived in Montreal's Sainte Anne ward or the Grange on Wadestown hill in Wellington, New Zealand, Bettina's taking of individual life histories seriously is the tie that binds together all her research projects.

But Wife to Widow is also much more than this. Wife to Widow marks a significant historiographical and intellectual transition in Bettina's scholarship that the book's title belies: the histories of Marguerite Paris, Emilie Tavernier, and Sarah Harrison, three of Bettina's women who became wives, and later widows, were not only woven into the streets, homes, and benevolent institutions of Montreal. …

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