Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Stagehands and Understudies

The book A Harvest Yet to Reap is a book I found footnoted in another book I read about women in Western Canada. The footnotes and bibliographies are such great places to find other resources. This book is out of print, and I had to buy it second hand. It's in good shape, but the pages in the middle are loose.

The book is a compilation of photographs, letters, advertisements, flyers, newspapers and magazines, all related to prairie women. Some of the women discussed are famous, like Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy. Others are simply ordinary women who took on the daunting task of pioneering.

The authors, in the Preface make an observation I am not surprised to see:
Material on the everyday life of "ordinary" women is relatively difficult to come by. Even historians of individual families or communities, many of them written by women, generally leave centre stage clear for Hubby or Dad. Women have seldom felt themselves to be makers of history. For generations they've been stagehands and understudies, doing much of the work while someone up front took all the bows. Few women have thought their lives important or interesting enough to merit documentation, and no one has ever given them much argument on this point.
The authors also point out to the fact that the majority of their research involved looking at the documents and memorabilia of English speaking women. Documentation by immigrant women, even if it existed, would have had to be translated. Most of the immigrants from Eastern Europe who flooded Western Canada after the first World War probably weren't arriving with much in their pockets to feed and clothe themselves, never mind provide resources to record their lives. The same situation would have existed for Aboriginal and Metis women.

I find it a little sad that the women probably didn't think they were contributing to history. The reality is that at points, there was a desperate need for women. The numerous propaganda flyers making the West sound attractive to single women is evidence that women, though unsung, were crucial to building the West.