While traditional historical study emphasizes important people and events, social history takes a layered approach and encourages the exploration of all facets of people’s lives. Historical events simply become markers on the human journey, which is seen as having social, cultural, economic, political, spiritual and other dimensions. This larger social landscape provides a context through which the lives of individuals and groups can be viewed and better understood.
The Women of Aspenland Virtual Exhibit takes a particular view of women’s history. It includes not only the biographies of individual women and the network of relationships from family, to church, to community, but also the ways in which women were shaped by their society in a particular historic era.
The particular experience of women in central Alberta is similar to that of women throughout the Canadian West and within the present-day province of Alberta. The trials of early settlement and the impact of geographic isolation and harsh economic realities are not unique to the region. But given these similarities, the particular stories of these women and their work have a colour and flair of their own. After WWII, significant social and economic changes have broadened the context in which the lives and work of women have taken place in Central Alberta. Increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse, new voices and experiences have emerged in the makeup of the region.
Place the lives of central Alberta women in a Social Landscape and be prepared to have your assumptions of the great moments and events of Albertan and Canadian history challenged. Understand their lives within the following contexts:
Fur Trade Society—The role of First Nations and Métis women is an important part of the social and cultural landscape of Aspenland. It has only been in the past 20 years that the importance of these women has been recognized in terms of political and economic life during the Fur Trade and Mission Eras and into the current development of contemporary communities. While the lives of some of these women are included here, many of them remain nameless and faceless in the historic record. Women’s role in carrying cultural memory within families is particularly important in First Nations’ communities and examples include Nancy Samson.
Home and Family— After signing of Treaties and settlement, the rural frontier provided a unique opportunity for some of the women who arrived. The struggles of pioneering, shared by both women and men, supported women’s claim for full participation in the new society. The presence and work of the United Farmers Women’s Association, at the forefront of rural and farm family issues, and the Alberta Women’s Institutes are a part of this. A large range of service and community organizations provide community support and opportunities to gather and discuss common concerns. Many women belong to several organizations and attend to the elderly, children and those without immediate family. Examples include Barbara Cormack, Helen Morgan, Bessie Damberger and Jacqueline Jevne.
Religion—Religious life has been an important aspect of Central Alberta communities. Many religious denominations have found a rich seedbed for their beliefs and women have played a significant role in the spiritual, social and community service aspects of religion. Some examples pertain to the work of missionaries and include Margaret Nissen and Halla Budvarson.
Social Activism—Alberta women have a long history of activism and those of Aspenland have been prominent in influencing, changing and creating their communities. They did this as individuals but also working through organizations such as the United Farmers of Alberta and the Women’s Institutes. The exclusion of women from public life encouraged early activity through attaining the vote and other reforms. Examples include Irene Parlby, Marjorie Bowker and Muriel Estrick.
Work—While the era of settlement required women to assist in the work of breaking the land, women soon involved themselves in the range of the building of rural and urban communities. While teaching was a profession suitable for women, they also made inroads in other areas, particularly since WWII.
Education—As in all pioneer societies, for many women, extended formal education was a luxury. However, a brave few initially pursued higher education. This trickle became a stream in the post WWII period. Examples include Molly Tofte and Bertha Munn.
Health Care and Science—While the traditional role of care-givers appeared to fit women for work in the area of health care, work in related occupations involving science education proved more challenging. Examples include Ester Laidlaw, Amy Conroy and Jane Daines.
Culture and Recreation—In the early part of the 20th century, women played an important role in the cultural and recreational life of their communities. Prior to the institutionalization of these activities, the individual and the group were the means of creating leisure-time activities necessary to balance work and play. An example is playwright Elsie Park Gowan, who began her career as a teacher in Lacombe and who wrote about prairie women from homestead to the workplace.