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Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History. (Reviews/Comptes Rendus).

Beverly Boutilier and Alison Prentice, eds. Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, (Vancouver: UBC Press 1997)

BRINGING TOGETHER a collection of essays highlighting the lives and works of women engaged in the writing and teaching of history over the century spanning the 1870s to the 1970s, Beverly Boutilier and Alison Prentice address the creation of historical memory both inside and outside the academy. Through these portraits of the individual and collective efforts of "amateur" and "professional" historians, the editors suggest that because of the responsibilities and constraints associated with gender, women viewed history from a different perspective than male historians, addressed topics overlooked by men, and initiated social, cultural, and regional studies well before these became acceptable within the academy.

Divided into four thematic sections, the book traces what might be viewed as the "evolution" of historical writing by women of Anglo-Celt background as they moved from outside to inside the academy. The first section, "Community Building," looks at the individual and collective efforts of women engaged in writing nation-building history from a social rather than political perspective; an approach that allowed them to incorporate women into the story. Included are profiles of two Victorian women, Agnes Maule Machar and Sarah Anne Curzon, whose writings were influenced by their religious and social convictions, and a study of the Ontario Women's Institutes' involvement in writing local histories. Despite differences, they shared a common interest in creating a history that would inspire Canadians to greater feeling for their country.

The second section, "Transitions," profiles historians who, through study and adoption of professional historical research methods, bridged the gap between "amateur" and "professional" history, still working outside the academy but gradually building links to the inside. Women living within Catholic religious communities engaged in historical writing in the course of their contemplative and record-keeping practices. Like the Women's Institutes, their work was collaborative. Individual women may have been prime movers; however, individual authorship was rarely acknowledged in publications. Cloistered women initially wrote to preserve historical memory within their own communities. It was in their work as educators that they began to expand their mandate. As their educational institutions strove to gain standing and recognition in the broader community, these women were required to go beyond the convent walls for training in academic disciplines. This process inevitably helped to professionalize their approache s to history, and also encouraged them to write for a wider audience.

Also operating outside of the academy, Constance Lindsay Skinner and Isabel Murphy Skelton gained a degree of professional respect and support from some male academics through their personal affiliations and innovative combination of "scientific" history research methods, combining cultural and social history. Self-made and earning her precarious living by the pen, Skinner scorned much about the academic world, yet depended upon and valued her connections with those academics who recognized her talents. Married to Oscar D. Skelton, well-known political economist and senior public servant, Isabel Skelton was less financially strapped. However, her desire to engage in research and writing was often thwarted by family responsibilities. In spite of obstacles, Skinner and Skelton produced works of originality in content and approach.

The third section, titled "The Academy," looks at women either within or on the edges of the academy, articulating the challenges they faced in being accepted into the history profession, regardless of training and talents. Often receiving encouragement in undergraduate study or even at the Master's level, women found that few professors encouraged them to go further. The few Canadian women who did obtain doctorates were almost always passed over for permanent faculty appointments. Their options were to leave the country for better prospects or stay for poorly paid sessional work. Others taught in public schools or worked in archives. Not surprisingly, independent means and freedom from family demands often determined whether and when a woman historian could practice her craft.

The last section, "New Departures," looks at the development of women's history as a category of study within universities during the 1970s. The chapter suggests that while some of the interest in women's history grew out of the feminist movement, the relationship between women historians and feminist activism is not a given, nor is it always a comfortable one. The essay further suggests that in spite of gains women historians need to be proactive to both maintain and improve the status of women in their profession.

In this collection of historiographical essays, a number of themes emerge. The authors argue that women have been involved in historical work for a long time, but that the professionalization that occurred around the turn of the century excluded women both from history and the writing of history. Because gender shaped so much in their lives -- finances, responsibilities to family, and restrictions in mobility, for example -- they tended to write about events, people, and places within their local areas whose experiences bore similarities to their work.

Of the individuals highlighted in this text, all had some parental encouragement and support for their intellectual pursuits. These women initially engaged in collective community history without constraints on their lines of inquiry or methods. But when faced with the prospect of outside critical attention to their work, the standards of male scholarship imposed new rules. In the case of Women's Institutes, there were internal differences as to how "professional" they ought to be. In the case of the nuns, as members of their community gained in academic training, their desire to shape their community histories for an outside critical audience grew.

While one of the express purposes of the book is to "call into question the legitimacy of the amateur/professional dichotomy as applied to the term 'historian,'" the implicit message is that progress is measured by women's attainment of professional status. Contemporary tensions among women making history inside and outside the academy are only briefly addressed. This account does not go beyond the 1970s, however. With the professionalization of women's history, one wonders whether there is a danger of creating a new canon that excludes "amateurs": minority women, feminist activists, and those exploring family and community stories in non-academic ways.

Nevertheless, this eclectic collection of essays illustrates how women, because of their lived experience, recorded history differently from men. In some cases, they initiated new ways of approaching history through interdisciplinary methods and erased the false boundaries of public and private worlds. Without addressing the overtly political topics of male historians, their act of writing women into history was sometimes political. This collection does not pretend to be definitive. However, it does point to the existence of a vibrant alternative stream of Canadian historiography that grew alongside the professional male-stream historiography and has yet to be fully explored.
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Author:MacDonald, Sharon
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Words:1118
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Next Article:Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication and Canada. (Reviews/Comptes Rendus).
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