Transcript

Thank You Danielle and this is a great pleasure for many reasons.

One, the forum is such a wonderful get together of people who love history. The second is that we're in the Canadian Museum of History which is revolutionizing itself and it's going to be one of the most exciting events I think for Canada's sesquicentennial, it takes practice that word, when it reopens its history hall in a couple of years. And the third is that I'm sharing a platform with Lawrence Hill, which is truly, truly an honour.

I'd like to thank Canada's History for bringing us all together, not just Larry and me, but all of us together and I'd like to congratulate the award winners. These awards are tough to get. You guys did a great job.

So I'm just going to speak quite briefly in an introduction to our afternoon on telling women's stories and the discussions that we're going to have.

Now as any journalism instructor will tell you, the five questions you must answer when telling a story are some variation of who, what, why, when, and how. I actually began my writing career as a magazine journalist. I then morphed into a biographer, and I'm still surprised and gratified to hear myself called a historian, although that's certainly what I do spend my life being.

But I write popular not academic history, which means I actually have to sell books. I actually have to find subjects that people will read about and print and persuade publishes that they're worth publishing.

And I'm going to, therefore, frame my presentation within those five standard journalistic questions. So telling women's stories.

First off, let's start with the question who. Whose stories are we going to tell?

My first writing assignments when I arrived in Canada in 1979 were for magazines: Macleans, Chatelaine, and the late lamented Saturday Night magazine.

At that time, as a result of the women's movement sweeping the english-speaking world, editors were suddenly very interested in features on women but the women they wanted me to write about were the path breakers. I blush as I recall the number of articles I wrote with titles like "10 Women to Watch in Politics" or "A Woman in a Man's World." I wrote about Canada's first woman judge on the Supreme Court, first woman Prime Minister, first woman astronaut.

Those articles needed to be written, so why am I blushing? Because back then, my readers and I shared the assumption that those barrier-breaking women were still aberrations. They could only get ahead by abandoning feminine norms. They had to behave like men to get there.

Who here loved Mad Men? Come on, admit it. (Audience laughter.)

You can't really believe if you're below a certain age that life was ever like that, can you? Well I'm the voice of history. It was. I actually remember an age when if a woman was with a bunch of powerful men the first question was, "which one is she sleeping with?"

Now we recognize that the women I wrote about were the vanguard of the new norm. The new norm involved, not just women changing their behaviour, but also men, or at least most men. And that new norm was largely the result of important structural changes within Canadian society. I'm talking about changes like the vast increase in the number of kids, including women, going to college and university. Or the impact of birth control or the change in Canadian economy which would see the end of blue collar jobs, the need for two incomes to support families, and the rising demand for skills once derided as female, l like keyboarding.

So these days the answer to the question "who" is different. We are no longer writing exclusively the stories of pioneers, well-known women who push the boundaries. We're also writing about the lives of ordinary women. Women who helped their families break sod on the prairies. The wives and mothers on the home front during wars. Girls who flopped into munition factories during World War One. And by doing this we are at last building the social history of Canada that covers women's activities as well as men's.

Now it's hard because there's a shortage of primary materials. Explorers, men, have to record their travels in journals and with maps. Politicians, until recently exclusively men, write out their speeches and participate in lengthy correspondents. Generals, men, file reports on their armies and their battles.

But women, if you worked on a subsistence farm in Upper Canada at the 1830s and did all the cooking, baking, laundry, and cleaning you raised the chickens, vegetables, and children, you tapped maple trees, made all the clothes, how much energy would you have for your daily journal at the end of the day?

And even if you did manage to write something, how much would be preserved? How often do local, provincial, or national archives accept the written remnants, the informal remnants of women's lives? Grandma's recipe books, letters to married daughters, diaries recording the births and deaths of children. These materials up to now have been consistently undervalued.

In my most recent book, "The Massey Murder," I wrote about a 17-year-old servant in the Toronto of 1915. Researching the book felt like a frustrating treasure hunt, with never enough treasure. Carrie Davis, the subject, left me nothing. I knew she was literate but there were no letters, no diaries, no private account of what she thought was happening to her. There was none of what Lawrence has just called the "beating heart" inside, inside the individual, the subject. The only reason that historians ever surfaced from the vast ocean of yesterday's forgotten lives is that she was accused of a murder.

My sources for the book were court transcripts, newspaper accounts, other people's memories, which meant there was actually always a filter between her and me. In the end there was enough for my purposes because I was also telling a larger story; a story about the impact of the First World War on women and on women's lives, the story about domestic service at a point when almost all middle-class households in Canada in the english-speaking world had servants.

But you have no idea how often I stared at the blurred newspaper photo of Carrie, the only image I had of her, and silently berated her to not bequeathing to posterity a diary.

So let's go on to my second question, "what." What are women's stories? What is women's history?

A simple answer is stories about women. These could be memoirs of our mothers or accounts of the adventures of 18th century women travellers. A more complex answer is stories about women that are told in such a way that brings out the very different context in which women in the past lived their lives compared to their male contemporaries.

Now we're talking here of course about gendered history. The word gender belongs to the vocabulary that feminist scholars have been using for nearly half a century within universities. During those decades, women's studies have fought their way from the outer margins of academic respectability to somewhere near the mainstream, thanks to brave and persistent practitioners.

At the same time, in the world beyond lecture halls, other women have been fighting their way into the professional and political mainstream. The world in which we live today is light years away from that in which our mothers grew up, and the assumptions that young women have today about their place in society are, thank heavens, a lot more robust than those of previous generations. And so this means that today we have access to far more women's stories and those stories are taken seriously.

Next question, "why." I'm not going to spend any time on this question except to say, what we should all say when we're asked why, "why not?".

Next up, "when." This one is simple. When are we going to write about women's stories? The answer is now. Now is the time to tell women's stories because thanks to great people who've been working in these trenches for a long time, women like those you're going to hear in the next panel, plus feminists in the world beyond universities, these stories have both a credibility and an audience that was unimaginable not so long ago.

And I have to tell you I'm deeply grateful to those who've gone before me in writing about women's lives because they're the ones who have really seeded the audience and the book buying public for stories about women.

When I finally actually wrote a biography about men, a man, Alexander Graham Bell, having written extensively biographies of women like Susanna Moody, Catherine Parr Traill, Pauline Johnson, Isabel King, my publisher looked at me with absolute delight and said, "this is going to enlarge your audience." And this was a euphemism which meant, "this is finally a book that you are going to write and that will be given to people on Father's Day." I was going to actually write for men as well.

Canadians have not done much of a job over the years of telling our stories. When I first arrived here in 1979, I looked around for the kind of history books I always enjoyed in England, biographies, lively social histories. I'm afraid I couldn't find them. There were biographies of course, biographies of prime ministers, generals, leading civil servants, and there were the stirring accounts of machismo adventures that Pierre Berton specialized in, great tales of derring-do starring men climbing, paddling, fighting, building.

But accounts of women's lives? Back then, nada. Today however, because of the changes in our society in which women's lives and work are assigned real value, these stories are seen as important and valuable. So when to write women's stories? Now.

And lastly the question, "how." And actually this is the question that most preoccupies me these days. In the Canada of 2015, how do I tell women's stories in truthful ways? Ways in which I combine the new insights that the feminist movement has given us with a realistic understanding of the period in which our subjects lived.

As a biographer how do I shape my explorations of the past in a way that includes both my subjects perceptions of their world and the assumptions that I and my readers today bring to the story?

You see, every generation reinterprets history, but you can't retrofit it. My current project is a book to be published next year in anticipation of the sesquicentennial which is the 150th anniversary of the British North American Act being passed by the British Parliament in 1867. My working title is "Who Do We Think We Are?: 150 Years of Imagining Canada." I've chosen around a dozen individuals who have contributed over the years to our national self-image.

One extraordinary aspect of this country is that in the, is the way it has reinvented itself, and its identity, in each generation. The country that began as an ill-assorted and distrustful bunch of British colonies, threadbare and frightened, is today one of the most successful and wealthy countries in the world. Each generation worked hard during that slow evolution. Each generation reimagined the country in which it lived.

So in each case, I write about the idea of Canada that my subject in these different generations grew up with and then how the priorities and ideas they developed for themselves, fed into the larger imaginative journey. Some of my subjects you will have heard of, many you will not. My first subject is George-Etienne Cartier and we roll along through the years until I reach today. And one of my final subjects, Shad.

I took a deliberate decision by the way. I have not included any prime ministers or any generals. Generals because other people write a lot about them in wonderful, wonderful volumes of military history we have. Prime ministers because, again, there is so much material on our prime ministers and I really wanted to get down deeper than that. By the time an idea has reached a politician who's going to become a prime minister, it's probably been through several metamorphosis and it probably didn't actually begin with him or her.

In this crowd I know what the next question is. How many women in my book? I would love to have had a 50-50 gender split, but that was not possible. Given that my subjects have to be people who've played public roles and in a country where women didn't get the vote until 1917 and the number of women got any form of higher education before the Second World War was tiny, that was unrealistic to think I would do a 50-50 split.

But in the end I've managed about a 65-35 split. And I have to say in self-defence, twenty years ago, an author facing this challenge might have felt unbelievably smug if he, and it was usually a he back then, had included one token woman.

So the artist Emily Carr is here. So is writer, Margaret Atwood. So is Justice Bertha Wilson. Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, but that's not why she's in my book. I'm not just dealing with symbolic appointments, the pioneers, the women I wrote about when I first came to Canada.

I'm writing about Justice Wilson because she played a decisive role in putting flesh on the bones in a crucial element in our modern Canadian self-image, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She was one of the judges, a leading judge, on the Supreme Court when that bill, when that Charter which had been embedded in legislation in 1982, had to be actually interpreted by lawyers. She consistently pushed the envelope so that she could enlarge the rights and freedoms of the underdogs in our society. She also made a huge difference to women's lives with several other decisions she wrote, including striking down the law that prevented women's access to abortion.

But I can't pretend, in the interest of pandering to my 2017 audience, that Justice Wilson considered herself a feminist, despite her extraordinary achievements. In fact, she always resisted the label "feminist." She didn't use words like patriarchy.

The way she interpreted the law, in charges and other cases, was a reflection of her own thrifty upbringing in Scotland, her experience as an immigrant, and her sensibility as a woman in what was then a male-dominated profession. For example, when she applied for Dalhousie Law School in 1954, after she'd come to Canada, the dean had advised her to go home and take up crocheting.

Her reasoning in her decisions relied on philosophical and legal arguments. Sometimes what seems so self-evident in retrospect, Justice Wilson's feminism, which now we understand to be a belief in total equality between men and women, is not an accurate picture for how she saw herself.

A couple of her colleagues and certainly her critics liked to use that label against her in the custom of the time. We are talking nearly 30 years ago when "feminist" meant something else. It often meant man-hating, bright, bra-burning witch, and such labels, whether you take the positive or the negative interpretation, were irrelevant to her.

Nevertheless, today Justice Wilson is an icon to women in law schools. She's one of the few judges in this country who, even several years after her death, is referred to fondly by her first name, Bertha, by people who've never met her.

My challenge is to place her firmly in the social context of her own lifetime and explain her distaste for the feminist label to a generation who take for granted the changes she secured.

So that's for me the most difficult question today of the writing of women's lives. It's the, how to do justice to those women, both within the context of their own time and, also, so today we realize just how important they were.

Thank you.

(Audience applause.)

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