I’ve been thinking about how as a writer, I am responsible for laying down a representation of women that reflects our reality. Many scholars recognize that, in historical archives, there is a limited representation of women on the American Frontier and in early Canada. It’s a commonly held view now that the Eurocentric patriarchy has told a version of history that focuses on a flattering version of the white male. In history and folklore, men are generally projected as conquerors, heroes, explorers and adventurers. Is that entirely accurate? Why are there so few stories about the heroism and adventures involving men of colour or First Nations? And where were the women?
Millions of everyday women helped to shape our world, but few are accounted for in historical archives. These invisible women were spread across different ethnicities, regional economies, social statuses and age groups. Yet, the record largely reflects that they have been passive bystanders while new worlds and communities are built.
I’ve begun reading The Western Women, a book of essays that outlines how women have been painted over by three stereotypes —the refined lady, the help-mate and the bad woman. Popular culture perpetuates these characterizations through movies and novels … well, some novels … but not the novels I write.
The refined woman archetype is delicate and unsuited to frontier life. She’s far to civilized for the roughness of pioneering and is ultimately driven mad. Catherine Parr Trail and her sister Susanna Moodie defied this imposed label. They were born to wealthy English families, yet adapted and thrived here. Their journals have provided the most insight into women’s daily lives in Upper Canada. In addition, they each published handbooks advising new settlers on best practices for adjusting to life in the bush.
The helpmate, on the other hand, represents the adaptable woman. She is a stoic and uncomplaining model of productivity. But in achieving this status, she sacrifices her individuality, becomes a service provider more than a woman. Laura Secord may have something to say about that assumption. She was every bit her husband’s support in their general store, and managed a household and childrearing as well. But Laura was by no means a shrinking violet During the War of 1812, she dragged her injured husband from the battle field. She later on to walk miles through swamps and enemy lines to forewarn Fitzgibbon of an American attack.
Then there’s the bad woman archetype: the Mae West, the Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, the madam in Gone with the Wind. The bad woman is sensational and powerful, but destined to lose everything in a tragic ending. She must pay the price for living outside the boundaries set for Victorian women. She was written as a cautionary tale. In the 1860s, right here in Whitby Ontario, one infamous Mrs. Glass ran a house of ill fame. She was the central figure in local high dramas—having chased a constable while brandishing a loaded pistol, then refusing to pay fines for serving alcohol. The records of her court trial disappeared—then so did she. I imagine her starting anew in greener pastures.
Professor of history, Susan Armitage writes that another stereotype foisted on women was “gentle tamer”, the notion that by virtue of women’s presence, men were inspired to gentlemanliness and were so moved to establish schools and churches and libraries.
The gentle tamer myth implies that women were passive, that all they needed to do was arrive—and poof—men built communities around them. In truth, these schools, churches and libraries were initiated mostly by women who argued for them and fundraised. But here was always a point when they needed to step back and watch the takeover of male-dominated professions that brought the plans to life.
A lot of American Frontier myth pertaining to First Nation peoples focuses on violent interaction and the need to protect the fair-haired maiden. This became a justification for violence against the First Nations people. Women’s journals reveal that the true threat was from within the home. Abuse against wives and children was rampant and eventually became the driving force behind the Temperance Movement of he early 1900s.
According to memoirs and letters written by white women like Catherine Parr Trail and Elizabeth Simcoe, friendly encounters with First Nation women were common place.
We Canadians are raised on the romantic vision of 17th century fur traders known as courier du bois. We pictured these dashing young French bachelors canoeing through rapids, braving the elements to open the Canadian interior. Actually, most of these men were married to First Nation women who drew them into the trade agreements of their matrilineal lines, interpreted for them, cooked and bore their children.
As western Canada invited immigration in the late 1800s, men needed wives to keep the homefront running. The following is quoted from poster encouraging British girls to come to Canada:
Thousands of nice girls are wanted in The Canadian West. Over 20 000 men are sighing for what they cannot get—WIVES! Shame!
Don’t hesitate –come at once.
If you cannot come, send your sisters.
So great is the demand that anything in skirts stands a chance.
No reasonable offer refused.
They are all shy but willing.
All Prizes! No Blanks!
Hustle up now Girls and don’t miss this chance. Some of you will never get another
In novel I’m currently writing, I inhabit the lives of fictional women characters from the 1800s. To accurately reflect their daily existence through story telling, I strive to understand these women’s lot in life—joys and sorrows, the restrictions they navigated, and in the absence of today’s technology, the never-ending day-to-day work of caring for a home and family.
My mission as a novelist is to write about women from the past in purposeful ways that calls attention to their contribution and does not perpetuate the stereotype of the fragile refined lady, the faceless helpmate, the doomed the bad woman, or the passive gentle tamer.
Thank you to everyone steadfast in their dedication to sharing women’s stories, past and present. You light the way.
Lead photo source: Three unknown women, Photograph attributed to James Ballantyne/Library and Archives Canada/PA-133804