Nancy M. Forestell, Kathryn M. McPherson, Cecilia Louise Morgan, eds. Gendered Pasts: Historical Essays in Femininity and Masculinity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. x + 360 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8020-8690-7.
Reviewed by Jonathan Anuik (Department of History, University of Saskatchewan)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2005)
The anthology Gendered Pasts is a necessary text for students of Canadian gender history. Primarily, the studies in the collection represent the approaches used by women's and gender historians. Historians of women and gender have attempted to understand the relationships between gender, class, racial, and sexual groups. These historians believe that language affected how historical characters formed their identities and developed their relations with the state. Finally, the terms "men" and "women" have been problematized, and the contributors collapse the myth of gender stability. The contributors to the anthology highlight the ambiguous and inter-related terrains that gender history has left on the landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian history.
The editors of Gendered Pasts demonstrate that public and private spaces were not rigidly segregated and claimed by a single gender group. The men and women are presented to the reader as historical characters negotiating dominant ideologies and measures of surveillance and regulation. The editors thus successfully present these gendered pasts as sites for conflict, co-operation, and change; and unify these narratives within a loose chronology.
Suitable gender behaviors have governed historical men and women. Cecilia Morgan proposes that self-restraint and control was expected of early-nineteenth-century Upper Canadian conservative politicians. She finds that government men were indoctrinated into an institution where emotionalism and hysteria were equated with femininity. Therefore, opponents were scrutinized in terms of their ability to maintain a dignified and stoic masculinity. Substandard politicians endured derogatory labels that implied feminine traits. Thus, these conservative men equated femininity with character weakness (pp. 15-16). Eric Setliff presents a gay male subculture in post-World War II Canadian cities as a site for contested identity formation. Setliff uses the tabloid press as a means to gauge societal responses to the presence of gay men and gay social spaces in Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Ottawa. Like Morgan, Setliff underlines the gendered language and gendered expectations of urban Canada in an age associated with the predominance of the heterosexual family unit. Setliff's homosexuals, or swishers, are associated with male effeminacy and weakness, and thus take their low place on the human hierarchy. Both Morgan and Setliff propose that language is a powerful force for categorizing orderly and disorderly conduct in Canadian history.
Not only are these historical characters conceptualized and debated, but they are also regulated according to predominant discursive categories. Mary Anne Poutanen identifies the wide application of the word "vagrant" to nineteenth-century women in Montreal. For Poutanen, the justice of the peace and the police formed appropriate definitions of female conduct, and used the language of vagrancy to remove disreputable women. Consequently, those women who could not financially maintain themselves, or those who consumed alcohol, faced removal through the justice system. Lynne Marks revives a now-defunct method of social control: the ministers and elders of Upper Canadian evangelical Protestant churches. In nineteenth-century Upper Canada, the authoritarian ministers and elders reinforced social beliefs and practices through boards of discipline. Marks determines that prior to 1850, evangelical churches governed the private sexual lives of men and women through information obtained by churchgoers and used their own boards of discipline to enforce proper marital and extra-marital conduct (p. 49). Finally, Margaret Hillyard Little argues that the Ontario Mothers Allowance, a subsidy designed to assist women unable to support themselves and their children, was laced by administrators with a set of public and private behaviors recipients were expected to follow. Like the courts and the churches, social service agency employees regulated gendered relations considered improper for the sake of preserving a tacit sexual order.
Race relations figure predominantly in these gendered pasts. John Lutz challenges what he perceives as an historical assumption that Aboriginal women's precontact authority was undermined through colonial encounters. He proposes that scholars reconsider precontact gender relations. In his Lekwammen society, women had little political power but instead lived in a gender-stratified society. He believes that industrialization elevated women's status and awarded them increasing control over the means of production in British Columbia (p. 95).
Work in urban and non-urban areas is a gendered space. Kathryn McPherson and Franca Iacovetta utilize feminine and masculine ideals to illustrate the tensions that exist between expected conduct and actual behavior in the burgeoning profession of nursing and also in Italian labor agitation. The nuance in both essays is the revelation of what McPherson terms as "the gendered contours of labor." McPherson's nurses were expected to exercise social and sexual restraint; practices that were to guide their professional and personal activities (pp. 184, 197), whereas Iacovetta's construction workers defended their right to protection in workplaces judged to be dangerous. For Iacovetta, masculinity is not an entity with "a fixed and unitary set of practices and identities" (p. 199), but, like femininity, changes throughout history.
Finally, a group of contributors conceptualize "gendered power." Karen Dubinsky and Adam Givertz reverse the category for analysis of sexual violence. Instead of approaching sexual deviance as a feminine behavior, Dubinsky and Givertz write men into the history of sexual assault in order to argue that the lines between normal and abnormal or deviant were a subject of constant negotiation. Men held more power than women to define deviance, but their identity was affected by working-class folklore that depicted the male sexual villain racially and identified a set of deviant sexual behaviors (p. 66, p. 69, p. 71). Nancy Forestell uses the industrial working-class family to revise the interpretation that men are responsible for the family unit. Her case study of working-class femininity in Timmins, Ontario proves that women were responsible for the preservation of the working-class family, through their domestic and remunerative work. Suzanne Morton's study of adoption request letters to post-explosion Halifax reveals women's role in determining family membership. Dubinsky and Givertz, Forestell, and Morton use gender to uncover and explicate power structures that affected relationships in judicial, labor, and family history.
Gendered Pasts is a well-organized and useful study. The collection allows seasoned veterans of gender history to engage with the research of noted academics while sampling studies from new scholars. Since its first appearance in 1999, Morgan and Iacovetta have proceeded to connect gender and race with civilization and nationalism. Both Morgan and Iacovetta have disseminated the reactions of newcomers and immigrants to subtle acculturative pressures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada. For Canadian history, the anthology has its benefits and shortcomings, some of which have not yet been reconciled in 2005.
The focus on gender and micro-historical study provides the reader with a history of the responses of individuals and groups to expected gendered behaviors in the public spheres of politics, labor, and social service. The contributors appear to be implicitly aware of the normative behaviors expected of these persons; Setliff underlines the importance of compulsory heterosexuality in post-World War II Canada and its negative affects on urban homosexuals. However, the editors and contributors must ask themselves if their gendered pasts, that have added a new dimension to Canadian history (p. 7), alter the political history of the nation-state? Gender historians may want to question whether gendered language affected the outcome of the Confederation debates. These first-rate research projects have the potential to contest the construction of the nation-state prior to Confederation and to reveal how immigrants and women understood Canadian citizenship and nationalism.
Relations between the genders and the dissimilarities within the social construction of gender are elusive in the pages of Gendered Pasts. The writers assess men or women; and develop a category based on a collection of evidence. Consequently, Morgan's women remain silent and fail to respond to the gendered insults of Upper Canadian politics, and Poutanen's male authorities are not understood as gendered subjects. Lutz and Morton assume that gender equates with femininity, and neither actually examines women's contested authority with historical men. Iacovetta rightly asserts that men are not fixed gendered beings (p. 199). Historians must understand that gender is never a fixed category. However, historians of men and masculinity either are unable or unwilling to gender "men" outside of the category of "sexual deviance." The editors did not push to destabilize gender in their collection aside from Setliff's presentation of the swisher. Forestell did not speculate if the Timmins housewife inverted her prescribed gender role when she developed the family budget. Gender and sexuality historians need to question whether destabilized gender automatically equates with male homosexuality. Gender historians need to alter the conceptual frameworks they employ when they visit the archives or develop oral interview projects; perhaps female sexual villains and deviant heterosexual men exist. If assumed gendered traits are not collapsed, "men" and "women" will continue to be limited by the gendered assumptions historians carry.
The editors and contributors to Gendered Pasts, and the gender studies cohort, note the importance of class and race. Thus, Iacovetta's hierarchies of masculinity (p. 222) are affected by perceptions of race and class in society. Future studies should question whether these gendered pasts are really gendered pasts, or gendered, racialized, and classed pasts. Editors of future studies and collections should consider gender as one part of the multifaceted categories that affect the writing of Canadian history, and the study of Canadian citizenship.
Gendered Pasts presents the reader with an empirical introduction to gender history while providing experts with useful studies and inspiration for future research.
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Jonathan Anuik. Review of Forestell, Nancy M.; McPherson, Kathryn M.; Morgan, Cecilia Louise, eds., Gendered Pasts: Historical Essays in Femininity and Masculinity in Canada.
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