Meaning and Modesty: Women in Alberta Local Histories
by Nanci Langford, Ph.D.
One of the significant contributions of the vast array of almost 3,000 local histories published in Alberta is that they document the lives of ordinary people, While this may not seem special to most who read them, to historians of Canadian women, the local history contains information and images not found anywhere else in Alberta’s documentary archives.1 These histories contain accounts of women’s community activities, women’s organizations, women schoolteachers, and women in families which would never have been part of the public record if development of local histories had not been undertaken. Historians of women and children in Canada are disabled from the outset by the paucity of sources available to them, so local histories, however time consuming they are to search, provide information that is valuable and rarely found elsewhere. They are not without problems however. One of their limitations is that women have traditionally been far too modest in telling their own life stories. Anyone who has conducted oral histories with women can describe how most women (certainly not all) speak about husbands, children and other relatives and their activities and accomplishments, and are reluctant to talk about themselves. Their own stories and the meanings of events and experiences in their lives, is shared only after much prompting and reassurances that these too are important. And women often select what they share based on what they believe someone else will approve, there is a self-censoring that occurs based on their perception of the audience receiving the message. I think these tendencies influence the development of local histories. These books are usually put together with significant input from women as committee members, editors, researchers and authors, of their own and their family’s stories, as well as the official story of the community at large. Still the documented contributions of women to community and family are at best understated and often invisible. Also, when women’s work is acknowledged, particularly during the homestead years, as both Stiles and Langford have pointed out, women are usually cast in supporting roles in the settlement enterprise.2 In the production of community histories, women reproduce the values and biases of the social milieu in which they have lived in the ways they choose to organize and recreate cultural memory. They are conscious of the need to please the community at large and modesty mediates. The reality and nature of a women’s culture in prairie communities is largely absent, though we catch glimpses of it in photographs, and in accounts of women’s groups such as Ladies’ Aid groups, Women’s Institute or the United Farm Women of Alberta. There are exceptions to this general condition, but they are rare and small in impact. Exceptions include the publication of women’s diary excerpts in community histories, or the addition of a woman’s memoir of her childhood or a particular event in her life.3
When original voices are heard, the meaning of events and experiences are often shared, not just a description. This is another limitation of community local histories. Many descriptions of people and events are presented, but we learn little of their significance, their impact, their meaning in people’s lives. There are two reasons for the heavy emphasis on description alone. One is the recognition of the history as a public account, and not a place for personal expression. Straight description is a safe and chosen form. The second is that personal accounts of the settlement years, written by the first generation of men and women to settle the land, are rare and scattered relative to the numbers of people who actually lived this experience and to the chronicles of homestead life written by subsequent generations. Second and third generation accounts are not entirely without meaning. Well –written stories that demonstrate the relationships between people in families and communities, that recreate how they live and work together and that integrate all members of the community into the story are also sharing meaning.4
Why is articulation of personal meaning important? I believe it is the only way we can grasp and begin to understand a little what it means to be that person, in that specific historical moment, and to be clear then about whose story we are telling. We learn, for example, that for Eliza Wilson, as she wrote in her dairy, the significance of installing her first curtains in her little shack at Circus Coulee is not just about making a home more attractive.5 For her, these curtains are symbolic of permanence, of hope, of home, and of her own female presence in what feels to her like a male world of ranching. We understand from this brief anecdote a little about who she is, and what this first home really meant to Eliza. It becomes the framework of understanding for many of the comments and entries she will subsequently provide in her diary. In introducing the diary excerpts of Dorothy Giles in Sod Shacks and Wagon Tracks , her daughters write: “Her diary tells of the immediate response of family and neighbours [when the Giles’ home burnt] – giving a realistic view of life in a rural community.”6 These first person accounts are valuable in helping us remain true to the perceptions and meanings of events in people’s lives as they experienced them, not as we have imagined them or changed them subtly over time. Many personal accounts challenge the traditional interpretations of historical periods and the people who lived them that we have learned from popular culture. They present us with contradictions and with diverse experiences that do not fit the hegemonic picture with which we have become comfortable. We need to be open to those possibilities, and to learn somehow to incorporate them more fully in future community history work.
Pictures of women available in public collections, such as archives and museums, are few in number compared to those available in private family collections. The community history makes it possible for many pictures from private collections to be shared in public records. Many images of women, in groups, and individuals, would never be available for public education except for their inclusion in community histories. The most common type of photograph is the family portrait, followed by posed group photos of women in organizations, or participating in a particular event, such as the opening of a church. The rarest are pictures of women alone or spontaneous photos of women doing their daily tasks, alone or in groups. A delightful but small collection of photos called “Women at Work” is found in the South Edmonton Saga. The editors gathered and placed together on a series of pages a variety of photographs demonstrating the broad range of women’s work activities in rural Alberta over four decades. These photos document what has often rendered invisible by popular accounts of women’s lives. Sylvan Lake’s history Sod Shacks and Wagon Tracks offers a sampling of “fashion” photos over several decades, although this series of photos would be enhanced by providing more examples from each period. When I look at women’s clothing in these photos and the high standards of dress they had to maintain, I am even more impressed with the effort women expended in laundering and pressing clothes under less than ideal conditions when water and other supplies were at a premium. Photographs tell us, more than words sometimes, of the diversity and scope of women’s work and leisure activities, and provide a sample of those moments and activities deemed significant enough to photograph. Perhaps it was because women’s work activities seemed so commonplace and unattractive compared to the composed family portrait where all were dressed in their finest, that they were infrequently recorded on film. Cameras were also rare in the early years of settlement and families were too busy doing the work to stop and photograph each other performing daily tasks. Those that we have of women at work are treasures indeed.
Accounts of families of the district, usually written by a living family member, make up the bulk of community histories. Their quality and style vary, but usually they are accounts of arrival, marriages, births, deaths, occupations and locations and occasional tragedies or successes. There is no way to ascertain how the family and its members interacted with the community, and contributed socially and materially to each other or their neighbours. One of Styles’ criticisms is of their uniformity, which seems surprising at first, when thousands of people are producing them over a period of fifty years. When I read these family stories I wonder which families have been left out? Were there Native, Metis, Chinese or other families integral to the life of the community who have been overlooked?
There are many factors that contribute to this uniformity. One is the reality that most community histories were developed by volunteer committees, and the format they chose, to have many authors writing family accounts, was the most efficient way to obtain comprehensive coverage of the community. Despite advice from consultants and experts, the family story format has remained a popular choice through three decades of publications. Another contributing factor to their popularity may be that communities used the history books of other communities as models for their own histories. It makes sense that there would be a competitive atmosphere and a sharing around the creation of these histories. Prizes were awarded by a number of organizations and by government for outstanding histories. This type of competition engenders uniformity, not uniqueness. The neighbouring community becomes the standard to both emulate and to better.
There are differences between community histories, and many communities are blessed with several publications which record their story. Red Deer has a collection of histories, written at different times and in different styles. One is by the Ridgewood Women’s Institute, who used the opportunity to highlight the history of their Institute branch in the first chapter. They won a national award for their publication. The most noticeable differences are those found by comparing single-authored books with those written by committees, committees being the most common. These histories are similar both in the ways in which they are organized, and in the way the settlement period in particular is remembered. Their uniformity suggests a popularized collective memory has guided their creation.
Stiles (1985) and Langford (1994) have identified several features of this collective memory: an emphasis on some aspects of settlement over others, a rigidity of roles for men, women and children and a particular characterization of women as capable, willing, self-sacrificing and almost saint-like, help-mates in the frontier family enterprises. Where does this uniform view, which is both a stereotypical and romantic view of settlement come from? Most of the published accounts of the settlement years in Alberta were written by the second generation to live on the homesteads, the children of the original couple who broke the land and created the family farm. This generation remembers the hard work of their parents, but their own lives are recalled as ones of freedom, exploration of nature, close family times and adventure. They idealize their parents, in ways which are often close to reality. The first generation of men and women to settle in rural Alberta did endure hardship and work extraordinarily hard. One of the difficulties we have in reconstructing this period is that those who lived it had little time to record what was going on in their lives, and some of it was so painful and difficult that they did not want to tell the full story of those years. These realities are reflected in the number and styles of accounts written by the first generation. Women’s homestead accounts are often carefully constructed, aware of an audience that may read them someday, although many still show their feelings about their lives. Men’s are characterized by their reporting of events and little sharing of feelings. Despite the care with which they were written, they reveal much about the lifestyle that is unpleasant, boring and tragic. These are not the accounts we have used to recreate our popular understanding of the settlement years. If we had, we would have a less homogeneous view of first generation men and women and acknowledge instead their very diverse experiences and responses to the settlement experience. It is important to acknowledge that on the surface, this generation does appear homogeneous. The process and tasks of settlement were similar, regardless of place of settlement time or resources. Settlers in the north found themselves in comparable situations to southern Alberta settlers two decades before them. Men and women had to learn specific skills, create a home, a farm or ranch enterprise, they had to partner in ways that they specialized in some tasks and shared others. Women were predominantly valued for their skills in feeding the family, this is a universal value in the period. All settlers, however reluctantly, had to believe that the life they were trying to build would eventually be better than the one they left behind. So the representations in community local histories are not inaccurate, but undoubtedly uniform in the way they make everyone brave, strong and capable, everyone skilled, and self-sacrificing.
The idealization of this generation is also influenced by a romanticizing of the act of migration and the idealization of motherhood. Ironically, a good example of this idealized version of the settlement generation, and particularly of women and women as mothers is found in a community history that is in every other way a good exception to the standard community history. Pioneer Days in Bardo, Alberta, written between 1941and 1944 by Ragna Steen and Magda Hendrickson, two amateur historians who were members of the Bardo community, is my favourite community history for a number of reasons.7 Here, the stories of the community and its families are organized into themes such as “Ways and Means”, “Social Life” and “Livelihood”. Women are featured in a chapter on the “Ladies’ Aid”; the chapter on “Homemaking” includes the efforts of both men and women to create comfortable secure homes for their families. Unlike most community histories, women and girls are fully integrated into the complete text, story examples of both sexes are used throughout the book. The book tells a story about the community, how its inhabitants related to and supported each other, and includes patterns of work, daily life and social interaction.
The example of idealized imagery included in this history is found both in the dedication and in a chapter called “Our Pioneer Mothers”. It is more typical of the writing found in many other community histories. Written almost as a homage, this chapter emphasizes the poverty of the pioneer generation in contrast to the fineness of their characters: “But though their faces were tanned and their hands were caloused and work-stained, they had a loving look and a tender touch for all who were in need.”8 The idealization of these women as mothers is found in statements such as: “Their greatest happiness was in caring for their children. Many a son and daughter of pioneers can say with Abe Lincoln, “All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother”9. Mixed with these kind of statements, however, are stories of real people in the Bardo area, and many of these examples support the claims that pioneer women were indeed remarkable people who suffered "incredible hardships”, “nervous fears” and accomplished marvelous feats.
There is no word on earth that calls to mind so many precious memories as the word “MOTHER”. No mothers ever led harder lives than the pioneer mothers of our western prairies. … Unbelievable stories are told of their resourcefulness, endurance and courage.10
Why does this uniform imagery of homestead women in community histories persist through many generations of history writers? Partly because, however glorified, these images are based on real life experiences. Also because we have little to challenge this uniformity – the sources are few and scattered, and to date few studies of original writings by this generation has been undertaken. And, like every other culture founded on experiences of migration and hardship, succeeding generations derive, somewhat unfairly, a sense of honour and certainly one of identity from the heroic tales of the first generation. Voisey and Stiles suggest that this need to pay tribute to the settlement period reflects the anxieties of rural communities undergoing significant and unsettling changes in the second half of the century. I think the explanation is more complex. These images and stories we perpetuate in hundreds of community histories represent both what we wish and what we believe our heritage to be. They also represent what we do not know, and sometimes dare not speak about, and that is the work of women that is invisible and yet essential to survival, the unacknowledged pain and silent suffering of many homestead women, the vast diversity of women’s experiences and accomplishments unknown to us.
Community local histories provide us with images and words about women’s lives we would not otherwise have. They are a rich source for research about women and family life. At the same time, they distort the diverse realities of women’s lives, project the authors’ values and views on women’s experiences, and obscure the full participation of women in family enterprises and community building. They are too modest, and share little of the meaning and complexity of women’s lives.