Lindsay McMaster. Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. x + 224 pages. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1455-3.
Reviewed by Merle Massie (Department of History, University of Saskatchewan)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2008)
Shopgirls, Prostitutes, and Dancing Strikers: Western Urban Women on the Margins
Some of my favorite works by Canadian writer L. M. Montgomery, aside from the classic Anne or Emily series, were her short stories, many of which featured young, urban working girls--domestics, newspaper writers, or shopgirls--struggling to make a life in the city. Images of the girls riding streetcars with aching feet after a long day of serving unpleasant shoppers, with nothing to look forward to but a dismal evening in a cheap bedsitter that smelled of boiled cabbage and cats were perhaps clichéd, but effective. Readers had a feel for their worries, their physical state, and an appreciation of their needs--for fun, for frippery, for something to laugh about. Lindsey McMaster's dynamic new book, Working Girls in the West introduces readers to these girls, arguing that working women at the turn of the twentieth century were the focus of intense public debate surrounding the perceived role of women. Through poetry, autobiography, newspapers and novels, McMaster reveals how these girls were represented in the popular media. These popular representations are subtly compared to the historical record to reveal a discrepancy between how this new urban dynamic unfolded for the women and how society sought to shape and control their lives. Using an innovative mixture of literary and historical technique, McMaster's book successfully straddles the genres of literature, history, and gender studies to present an engaging look at young women in western Canada during the turbulent years of its explosive population growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The heart of McMaster's book lies in the assertion, defended in the introduction and first chapter, that the experience of working women in western Canada was somewhat different from that of eastern Canada, as presented in Carolyn Strange's excellent work, Toronto's Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 (1995), which McMaster cites as an inspiration. The "social problem" of working women was "exacerbated and amplified" (p. 2) in the West by ethnic tension and immigration debates (the "shortage of white women"), its colonialism, and its rapid industrialization and urbanization. White women's essentially domestic role as "cultural carriers and agents of social uplift in Britain's colonial outposts" (p. 3) did not meld particularly well with the reality of working women in urban centers as domestic help, chamber and laundry maids, and retail workers, or as teachers, nurses, and stenographers. This is an interesting perspective on two fronts: one, it reminds us that the West, despite the over-used images of agriculture and sod shacks, was a strongly urban space; and two, there were tensions within the cultural conception of gender roles that fell sharply along class lines. Moreover, McMaster also points to the heavy moralistic overtones surrounding working women, who were viewed as breaking "traditional Victorian ideals of domestic femininity" (p. 8) and so became subject to a different working standard and socially-constructed disadvantages, from less-than-adequate wages to a denial of their rights, or even a recognition, of their value as workers.
Through examining literary representations of Canadian working girls, chapter 2 provides a unique insight into the social construction--both realism and romanticism--of working women. Using literary works as social documents, McMaster is able to present both the daily life of a working girl, from clothes to sex, and the way society used particular representations of urban working women to further their own ends. Several key themes are brought to light: the conflict between traditional domestic and non-domestic work; class conflict between middle- and working-class women; and morality, particularly the dichotomy between innocence and corruption. McMaster argues that literature that depicted working girls at all was "engaged in a politics of representation … to depict the working girl was to invest meaning where it had long been denied" (p. 45)--certainly a more political description of L. M. Montgomery's writing than is generally portrayed. Interestingly, McMaster does not use Montgomery (although she is a Montgomery scholar). The five chosen texts range geographically outside the bounds of the West and include one poem, three novels, and a collection of stories. I would have appreciated a discussion regarding how these particular texts were chosen, and whether they were considered "bestsellers" in their day, and so may have had an appreciable impact on social discourse at the time. The texts are addressed in chronological order, suggesting that there was a change in the way women were represented in these texts, culminating in a discussion of feminist favorite J. G. Sime's Sister Woman, published in 1919 to much critique.
McMaster then turns her attention to examining the most extreme representations of urban women--white slaves, prostitutes, and delinquents--depicted by the hysterical middle-class reform movement as the ultimate fate of non-domestic, out-of-control female workers. The "white slave" scare plays on the idea of innocence, of young women deceived or abducted and sold or held against their will. Delinquency falls toward the other end of the moral scale, depicting women whose moral compass was entirely out of whack. Much of the chapter focuses on a fascinating historical and cultural document, the memoirs of a prostitute/madam who operated brothels in western Canada. An autobiography published under a pseudonym, Madeleine (1919), the work nonetheless offers a unique "insider" view of the oldest profession--and one not used or referenced by James Gray in his unconventional Red Lights on the Prairies (1971). Madeleine commented extensively on the moral depictions of prostitution, white slavery and "feeble-minded" or delinquent bad girls and McMaster uses the document to excellent effect.
Despite extensive moral commentary and social stigmatism, working women continued to operate in the West, and chapter 4 examines the social rhetoric that surrounded these women when they protested their working conditions, and went on strike. Early labor historians ignored the role of women in unions and strikes, but more recent work has closed this gap and opened the historical record to examine women's participation and specific gender connotations. McMaster suggests that there was a split in the social discourse of working girls regarding their roles in union strikes, particularly in the oppositional representations of screaming, rock-throwing bitter women on picket lines versus cordial, happy women deftly organizing hugely successful dances to supplement strike funds. Using newspaper accounts, this chapter argues that girls on strike "added an element of rebellion and revolt to this already contentious female figure of social turbulence" (p. 144). McMaster stresses the role of dances as an expression of "political solidarity," in addition to the practical aspect of adding pennies to union coffers stretched thin by a strike. The overemphasis on the frivolity and fun of dances "likely influenced the culture at large [to dismiss them as 'just girls'], including the organized labour movement, the middle-class feminist movement, and even early labour historians," and skewed the later historical record (p. 175).
Chapter 5 examines the issue of race, particularly the perception of danger when white women worked in Asian-owned establishments such as restaurants or laundries. Sensationalized murders, particularly the Janet Smith case in Vancouver, and acute racialized social discourse on mixed workplaces and mixed marriages preoccupied many social reformers and led to legislation barring specifically Asian/white women mixed workplaces. McMaster suggests that the extensive coverage of the case, its many leads and suggestive possibilities, all of which were focused on a moral concern, "overlook[ed] practical matters" (p. 167). The case, and subsequent legislation, "came close to legislating women right out of their jobs … the actual work itself and its value to the women and to the community [was] rendered practically invisible" (p. 167). This chapter, along with the chapter on prostitution, highlight a significant blank spot in McMaster's canvas. The absence of consideration of First Nations women--whether as canners, industrial workers, wives or prostitutes--suggests that either McMaster's sources (newspapers and published literary works) ignored this Canadian racialized dimension, or that McMaster failed to adequately explore this avenue. Certainly the work of Sarah Carter, Capturing Women (1997), or Adele Perry's On the Edge of Empire (2001) would have rounded out these chapters. Of course, it is not fruitful to castigate McMaster for not writing a different book, but perhaps she could have included a sentence or two to clarify her choices and acknowledge other possible racialized dimensions.
Interestingly, McMaster's choice to examine working women through cultural representation in newspapers, novels, poetry, and autobiography is a good one, but more can certainly be done. Literary, or written, documents are limiting, and there is a new movement to include plays, music, and other cultural documentation, such as comic books and advertisements, into historical and literary focus. It would be interesting to explore, for example, not only the newspaper accounts of striking women organizing successful dances, but to hear the music that was played at those dances. The recent articles by Peter Steven and Ray Argyle in the June/July 2008 edition of The Beaver suggest that music offers a unique "snapshot" of our historical and cultural past. A quick perusal brings us such song titles as "She Doesn't Flirt" and "The Canadian Girl," both highly suggestive and possibly fertile ground for further study. As well, there are no photographs in the book, which is a pity. If the clothes, hairstyles, and activities of working girls were such an important part of their identity--as McMaster argues--then some photographs showing these women both at work and at play would have been appropriate.
In the end, though, McMaster's work is engaging, interesting, and a must-read for gender, history, and literary scholars. It reintroduces readers to some previously forgotten texts, and would find a home in both literary and historical university classes. It cites key recent imperial, gender, and colonial historical works and her decision to use literature as social documents is innovative. The book is a revision of McMaster's doctoral dissertation in English, and currently she is at the Department of English Studies at Nipissing University. McMaster's work uses a literary lens to examine what happened in a cultural context when "the working girl stepped into a whirlwind of contradiction about women's place, the perils of the city, and the meaning of work, and she foreshadowed much about women's changing roles in the twentieth century" (p. 175). In some ways, this book is a reminder that gender concerns have played a powerful role in western society for a long time.
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Merle Massie. Review of McMaster, Lindsay, Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women.
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