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Hearing and writing women's voices.

Patricia Baker

Departments of Sociology/

Anthropology and Women's


Mount Saint Vincent


Halifax, Nova Scotia

Cet article examine des questions, a savoir comment enregistrer les experiences et ecouter les voix des femmes travaillant dans le domaine des finances. Que signifie l'acte de documenter des voix de femmes? Une chercheure feministe, peutelle documenter des voix de femmes autres que la sienne? Comment "traduisons"-nous les voix des femmes en un texte universitaire? En paraphrasant une question posee par Sherry Gorelick (1996), est-ce qu'il suffit de donner une voix aux femmes une voix? Comment "entendons"-nous et "transcrivons"-nous les voix des femmes, et qu'arrive-t-il lorsqu'on tente de le faire?

This article explores questions about chronicling the experiences and hearing the voices of women financial workers, the subjects of the author's research. What is meant by documenting women's voices? What is the place of the feminist researcher's voice? Can a feminist researcher document women's voices other than her own? How do we "translate" women's voices into academic text? To paraphrase Sherry Gorelick (1996), is giving women voice, enough? How do we "hear" and "write" women's voices, and what happens when we try?


An issue recognized early in the development of feminist methodology was that the voices of women must be heard in feminist research. A central tenet of feminist research is the documentation of women's voices faithfully and with respect for women's experiences. The purpose of this paper is to explore and analyze my struggles to chronicle the experiences, and hear the voices, of the women financial workers who have been the subjects of my research. In particular, I examine here the following questions: what in fact is meant by documenting women's voices? What is the place, or role, of the feminist researcher's voice? is it possible for a feminist researcher to document any woman's voice other than her own? how do we take into account, deal with, perform, the "translation" of women's voices into written academic text? and, to paraphrase Sherry Gorelick (1996), is giving women voice enough? In short, how do we "hear" and "write" women's voices, and what happens when we try?

I explore my concerns in the following manner. In the next section of this paper I briefly discuss selected feminist methodological literature which illustrates the importance of documenting women's voices, and the work of feminist researchers who analyze the inclusion of women's voices in written feminist research. I also specifically refer in this section to the work of feminist anthropologists from whom I have been able to gain some insights with respect to the textual representation of women's voices in academic research. This is followed by a section in which I explain why and how I have attempted to include women's voices in my own research, and in which I examine and analyze the problems which have surfaced in my efforts to write about women's lives. Finally, I synthesize the work discussed in earlier sections to suggest how my above-mentioned questions might be answered and my contributions to feminist research be furthered.

Writing this paper has allowed me to accomplish several things. In my attempt to hear and write women's voices, I have reflected upon how I have done my research and how and why I have written my research as I have. Through these reflections and by exploring feminist efforts to grapple with the complex issues involved in documenting and textually representing women's voices in academic research, I have discovered that giving women voice in written texts is not only insufficient, but by itself, impossible and undersirable. Those texts are constructions, a blend of experience, research and theory which include a multiplicity of complexly interwoven voices: those of the women who are subjects of the research as well as my own analytical but always subjective authorial voice. Consequently, documenting women's voices in written text is not easy nor straightforward, involving as it does a complex interplay among the voices, privilege and contributions of all those involved in the research. Uncovering this complex interplay has been difficult for me in that I have resisted acknowledging and hearing my own analytical, and privileged, voice in my work. However, coming to terms with this difficulty has been worthwhile. I now have a better understanding of how my personal, political and academic interests have affected, and have changed as a consequence of, my research. Moreover, this paper has given me the opportunity to challenge my limits and to more fully appreciate my research participants' experiences and voices in conjunction with my own.

Feminism and Hearing / Writing the Voices of Women

For over two decades, feminist researchers have been grappling with how to identify the key elements of feminist research. Researchers have debated how to define feminist research (and whether feminist research can in fact be distinguished from other "good research"), the relationship among epistemology, methodology and method in feminist research, whether feminist research can be characterized by distinctive method(s) or methodological principles, how effectively feminist principles can be put into practice in the conduct of research, and whether feminist research and feminist practice must be mutually reinforcing.

In her Introduction to Feminism and Methodology, Sandra Harding (1987, p. 1) enumerates three characteristics which she maintains are distinctive to feminist research and which have informed the work of many feminist researchers. First, she argues that the issues important to feminist research are derived from women's experiences (see also Cotterill, 1992). Secondly, feminist research should be designed so as to "provide for women explanations of social phenomena that they want and need" (1987, p. 8) -- that is, feminist research is of and for women. Third, in feminist research, the researcher must be located in the same "critical plane" (1987, p.9) as those who are the subjects of the research. In their review of the literature on feminist methodological approaches in sociology, Judith Cook and Mary Fonow have similarly identified five principles as basic to the conduct of feminist research which, I think, also exemplify methodological concerns raised by feminist researchers. These are:

(1) the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; (2) the centrality of consciousness-raising as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or "way of seeing"; (3) the need to challenge the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from one another and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; (4) concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and (5) emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research. (Cook and Fonow, 1990/1986, pp. 72-73)

Many other researchers (see for example, Mies (1983), Cook and Fonow (1990), Nielsen (1990a), Stanley and Wise (1990), Fonow and Cook (1991), and Reinharz (1983, 1992)) have put forth postulates, features, or components which, they argue, form the essentials of feminist research. Included among these features are concerns about the relative benefits of research to the researcher and the researched, the power and privilege of the researcher in relation to those whose lives are being researched, the degree to which the researched are objectified in research, and, in general, the responsibility of the researcher for the entire research process (see also Strasser and Kronsteiner, 1993).

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of feminist research which informs the work of all these researchers -- and is the characteristic on which I focus in this paper -- has been an emphasis on making women's lives visible. Unlike much traditional research, certainly in the social sciences, which has systematically ignored or distorted the roles of women in social life, feminist research has attempted to recognize, faithfully document and respect women's diverse experiences. Consequently, feminist research has been rooted in women's experiences; and, as women's lives become known and visible through feminist research, women have become the subjects and creators of knowledge and theory (Du Bois, 1983). Furthermore, feminist research has also documented gender and gender relationships, the ways in which women's lives and experiences exist in relation to men (see, for example, Moore, 1988; del Valle, 1993). (1)

One form of research which has been explicitly directed toward the goal of making women's lives visible and their voices heard -- and which, as I will discuss below, has been methodologically significant in my own research -- is a life history approach. The collection of life histories has been an important research method in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, literary studies, psychology and sociology. (2) Furthermore, as Susan Geiger (1986) argues in her review essay on women's life history research, while life histories are recognizable as a distinctive form of oral documentation -- an in-depth record of an individual person's life -- they by no means constitute a homogeneous category. Included under the rubric of "life history" are biographies, autobiographies, formal oral histories and focussed oral interviews.

As Langness and Frank (1981) note, life histories have been utilized within anthropology at least since the 1920s. The recognition that women's life histories are important sources of knowledge about women's lives has, however, been more recent (see Geiger, 1986). Moreover, as Geiger points out, a life history approach to understanding women's lives makes a valuable contribution to feminist research:

The alleged weaknesses identified in the usual criticisms of life histories [their lack of representativeness and their subjectivity] ... can be viewed as strengths, especially at this stage of feminist research. These documents provide an exceptional resource for studying women's lives at different points in their life cycles in specific cultural and historical settings. The personal contextualization of women's lives found in life histories makes them invaluable for deepening cross-cultural comparisons, preventing facile generalizations, and evaluating theories about women's experience or women's oppression. (Geiger, 1986, p. 338)

The contribution of a life history approach to feminist research is recognized in a book devoted to women's oral narratives:

Oral interviews are particularly valuable for uncovering women's perspectives. Anthropologists have observed how the expression of women's unique experience as women is often muted, particularly in any situation where women's interests and experiences are at variance with those of men....To hear women's perspectives accurately, we have to learn to listen in stereo, receiving both the dominant and muted channels clearly and tuning into them carefully to understand the relationship between them. (Anderson and Jack, 1991, p.11)

As feminist research has become established, interest in both the creation and uncovering of women's life histories has grown. While not problem-free, women's life histories -- like other forms of feminist research -- have the potential to challenge traditional androcentric practices and definitions of knowledge and research, by making women's lives visible and their voices heard, and by requiring a re-evaluation of knowledge and "appropriate" questions for research.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this long-standing appreciation of the value of women's voices and experiences in feminist research, some feminist writers have cautioned against an uncritical priorizing of "voice" or "experience" as the primary, authoritative source of knowledge of, about and for women. Heidi Gottfried (1996, p. 5), for example, suggests that, while voice is certainly a valuable concept in feminist research -- or rather a set of concepts, since it has taken on different meanings for different feminist writers -- giving primacy to the authority of experience can be "limiting and exclusionary, since no personal experience is inclusive enough to encompass all human experience." Rather, she argues that we emphasize the interrelationships among experience, research and theory. It is through these connections that feminist research transcends traditional scientific norms of detachment and objectivity, and that the feminist researcher locates her own autobiography, her own voice, within her research (Gottfried, 1996).

Thus, Gottfried argues, it is not possible or desirable just to represent the voices of women in the writing up of feminist research. Those voices will always be filtered and translated by the feminist researcher if they are to become part of a more general social analysis which connects individual voices and experience to social processes beyond any individual's direct experience (Gottfried, 1996). Moving beyond individual voice and experience is crucial for feminist research, for as Gorelick (1996, p.26) remarks:

...use of such techniques as interviews, participant observation, and oral history helps to describe the world as perceived by the persons studied, but it may remain confined within their perceptions and thus not be able to provide them with much that they do not already know.

Direct experience is limited, according to Gorelick (1996), because it is comprised of individual perceptions and not cumulative knowledge, and also because there are hidden, system-wide elements of oppression that cannot be revealed through personal struggle or experience. However, "[t]he social scientist can, in collaboration with research participants, provide, question, and test theoretical understandings that reveal the hidden underlying structure of oppression." (Gorelick, 1996, p. 29). Ultimately, then, feminist research must incorporate, in a complex and multi-faceted way, not only the active voices of women who are the subjects of research, but also the analytical voice of the researcher herself.

However -- and Gorelick acknowledges this -- the outcomes of feminist research are more complex and contradictory than this. Feminist researchers are also caught in the particularities of their own lives, are also influenced by social forces beyond their direct experience or knowledge. When, as is often the case, feminist researchers are in positions of control over their research subjects, these researchers are limited in their ability to perceive oppression in which they are implicated. Thus, privilege inhibits our ability to analyze our own, let alone others', experiences and voices (Gorelick, 1996).

This complex dynamic among women's voices, experiences, analysis and the researcher-subject relationship has been insightfully explored by feminist ethnographers, especially with regard to the textual representation of this dynamic and the written documentation of women's voices (Moore, 1988; Stanley, 1990; Stacey, 1991; Bell, Caplan and Karim, 1993; Strasser and Kronsteiner, 1993). As an anthropologist I have found many of their views helpful in my own exploration of and struggles with this dynamic. In particular, I think that the edited collection of essays entitled Anthropology and Autobiography (Okely and Callaway, 1992), by critiquing traditional approaches to anthropological fieldwork and writing, exemplifies these views, and so I briefly examine it here.

In this collection, the authors focus on the position of the ethnographer within the practice of intensive fieldwork, arguing that the nationality, ethnicity, gender, age and personal history of the fieldworker affect the process, interaction and resulting written text. The authors also explicitly address how the ethnographer's autobiography is interwoven with the doing and writing of the fieldwork experience, in which the "self" (anthropologist) and "others" (people of those cultures studied by the anthropologist) are linked (see, for example, Cohen, 1992; Hastrup, 1992). The authors demonstrate that, as in fieldwork, the process of writing and the creation of the final text involve choices which are dependent upon the cultural history, interests and experiences of the ethnographer. Consequently, ethnographic monographs which appear to be the definitive word on particular cultures are in fact partial and selective truths, and are historically contingent.

There are choices to be made in the field, within relationships and in the final text. If we insert the ethnographer's self as positioned subject into the text, we are obliged to confront the moral and political responsibility of our actions.

... The people in the field relate to the ethnographer as both individual and cultural category, whether or not the ethnorgrapher acknowledges this. Autobiographical accounts of fieldwork are not confined to self-understanding in a cultural vacuum. They show how others related to the anthropologist and convey the ethnographic context. (Okely, 1992, p. 24)

Kirsten Hastrup, one of the authors in Anthropology and Autobiography, acknowledges that neutrality in anthropological research is a pretence; the researcher's consciousness is always part of the reality of fieldwork. However, despite the intersubjective, dialogical quality of fieldwork research, traditionally the written product conceals the voices of informants as a result of "anthropological distancing," whereby the ethnographer controls the form and style of text, producing a constructed, interpreted, contingent version of a culture (Hastrup, 1992). As a consequence, "however many the direct quotations, the informants' voices cannot penetrate the discursive speech of the ethnographer" (Hastrup, 1992, p. 121).

The result is a perpetuation of the asymmetrical fieldwork relationship in the text itself: the level of the anthropological discourse [the relationship between ethnographers and informants] is hierarchical. It is our choice to encompass their stories in a narrative of a different order. We select the quotations and edit the statements. We must not blur this major responsibility of ours by rhetorics of "many voices" and "multiple authorship" in ethnographic writing. (Hastrup, 1992, p. 122; emphasis in original)

Anthropologists frame research projects, design interview questions, and insert themselves into others' lives, assuming and expecting that those "others" will speak to them. Power is thus unequally distributed throughout the entirety of the research process.

Also in Anthropology and Autobiography, Helen Callaway focusses on how gender shapes the anthropologist's identity, the ways in which anthropological data are gathered and the textual interpretations of other societies. She makes use of recent feminist anthropology, specifically in its focus on gender as both symbol and social relationship (Callaway, 1992). She pays particular attention to the significance of gender to the relationship between the conduct of fieldwork and the writing of ethnographic texts:

With gender highlighted, the continuities and disjunctions between fieldwork and the writing of texts take on greater clarity. As fieldworkers we are necessarily embodied creatures, identified by host societies according to their classificatory systems, gender being a salient feature. Texts, in contrast, are disembodied; the author's gender may be evident only in inflections and nuances. Again, women and men in the field conduct their work in personal, face-to-face encounters through the medium of dialogue. Later, back home, these multiple levels of personal discourse become transmuted into impersonal and distant printed words. These very disjunctions have become issues in current debates. (Callaway, 1992, pp. 29-30)

As Callaway notes, some feminist anthropologists have begun to explore a "dialogical methodology" (1992, p. 44) through which they explicitly insert the "self" into research to more clearly demonstrate an awareness of the positions and power relationships among all parties -- self and others -- to the research (see also Hastrup, 1992). Feminist anthropologists are recognizing the intersubjectivity and interpersonality of knowledge, and that knowledge is strategically created within the research project itself. (3)

Whose voices are included in the text, how they are given weight and interpreted, questions of priority and juxtaposition are clearly anthropological and political concerns. They are, at the same time, textual strategies. (Callaway, 1992, p. 44)

As I have alluded to above, the concerns raised in this collection are becoming more central to the pursuit of knowledge among feminist researchers more generally: that is, the creation and acknowledgement of interactive research relationships, particularly through the investment of the researcher's own identity or autobiography in the research process and in the creation of knowledge, whether through interviews, life histories, participatory research or participant observation (see Oakley, 1981; Maguire, 1987; Cotterill, 1992; Smith, 1993; Stanley, 1993; Stivers, 1993; Strasser and Kronsteiner, 1993; Belle, 1994; Hornstein, 1994; Stewart, 1994). (4) As Cotterill and Letherby (1993, p.68) argue, "feminist research involves weaving the stories of both the researcher and her respondents."

Nevertheless, as Gorelick (1996) and Gottfried (1996) have pointed out, feminist researchers are aware that, despite a desire to develop reciprocal, non-hierarchical, complex and interwoven research relationships, the dynamics of power are real and influence the research process in its entirety, and particularly the writing up of the research. Cotterill (1992, p. 604), while recognizing that the balance of power in a research relationship can shift and change throughout the research process, notes that:

... the final shift of power between researcher and respondent is balanced in favour of the researcher, for it is she who eventually walks away. When the researcher leaves the field and begins to work on the final account, the responsibility for how the data is analysed and interpreted is entirely her own. From now on the researched are vulnerable. Their active role in the research process is over and whatever way it is produced is beyond their control. And, as Stanley and Wise (1983) point out, often it is so changed in the writing it is unrecognizable to those who provided the source material.

The final product, the written text, is a complex result of the interweaving of several different stories:

As feminist researchers studying women's lives, we take their autobiographies and become their biographers, whilst recognizing that the autobiographies we are given are influenced by the research relationship. In other words, respondents have their own view of what the researcher might like to hear. Moreover, we draw on our own experiences to help us understand those of our respondents. Thus, their lives are filtered through us and the filtered stories of our lives are present (whether we admit it or not) in our written accounts. (Cotterill and Letherby, 1993, p. 74)

In the end, however, the researcher, as writer and interpreter, controls, first, what is said about the research; second, what is said about those women whose lives are portrayed in that research; and third, to whom the research is presented. (For an extended and thoughtful discussion of these points, see Wolf, 1992.) Paradoxically, this control over the research both allows for the possibility of going beyond individual women's lives and voices, toward a more expansive analysis of systemic structures of oppression (and ways in which those structures might be changed or eliminated), and limits research outcomes in so far as the researcher's own voice and experience are limited by her relationship to privilege, power and oppression.

My Research: Union Activism and the Voices of Women

The work of the feminist researchers to whom I have referred above has been extremely helpful to me in my reflections upon why and how I have attempted to include women's voices in my own research, and in my analysis of the problems which have surfaced in my efforts to write about women's lives. My interest in the issue of how women's lives are documented in feminist research, and in particular in the use of a life history approach, has arisen out of my research with women financial workers. Since 1988 I have been studying the impact of unionization on women who work in Canadian financial institutions. (5) Many researchers interested in finance sector unionism in Canada, myself included, have tended to focus on the structural and ideological constraints which limit women finance sector workers' interest in and ability to unionize. Such constraints include the changing structure of the Canadian financial system (for example, widespread technological change and financial institutions' increasing reliance on part-time and casual workers to improve their efficiency, flexibility and competitiveness in the national and global economy), bank managements' consistent anti-unionism, finance sector workers' limited experience with unions, the structure of federal labour law in Canada, inter-union rivalries, and men's negative attitudes about and responsest to women's union participation (see Lowe, 1978, 1980; The Bank Book Collective, 1979; Lennon, 1980; Beckett, 1984; Warskett, 1987, 1988; Baker, 1991). What I have come to realize in my current research is that we can also learn a great deal about the potential for finance sector unionization from finance sector workers' direct involvement in union activity. We gain important insights into finance sector workers' positive unionization experiences, and not simply the limitations they face, by viewing union activity from the perspectives of unionized finance sector workers themselves.

Consequently, I have explored the union experiences of women finance sector workers from the women's points of view, so as to better understand how and why unionization has succeeded or failed in Canadian financial institutions. I have asked: how do women in financial institutions perceive unions? how and why do particular finance sector workers become interested and active in unionization, and why do they remain interested? In short, what does union activism mean for women who work in financial institutions?

In attempting to answer these questions, I have found a life history approach to be invaluable in expressing and understanding women finance sector worker's voices and their lives since, in addition to my interest in the women's union activity, I have also been concerned with how that activism has influenced, and been influenced by, other aspects of their lives. To learn about women's life histories from these perspectives, I have interviewed finance sector workers in various communities across Canada where unionization in banks and credit unions has been successful, and where there have been particular union "events," such as unionization drives, strikes, and jurisdictional disputes and transfers. I chose interview questions which I felt would address the questions raised above in the context of the women's daily lives. The interviews, consisting of between 20 and 30 open-ended questions, touched on the women's background -- where and in what kind of family they grew up, their education, experiences of marriage and children, their history in the paid labour force, and more specifically their experiences of working in a financial institution. The interviews also focussed in considerable detail on the women's involvement with the finance sector union in their work places, whether they were involved in the original certification of the union, contract negotiations, and in any strikes which may have occurred. I was especially interested to know if the women considered themselves to be "active" and "union leaders" in their union, how their activism/leadership was received by family and friends, how easy or difficult it was to balance family, work and union responsibilities, and to what extent, and in what ways, they had been changed by their involvement with the union. I also wanted to know their analysis of the union's successes and failures in their work places, and their opinions concerning how unions might more successfully organize in the Canadian finance sector in the future.

My interviews with finance sector workers thus have explored not only the history of women's involvement with unions in financial institutions, but also what factors in their lives have contributed to, or affected in any way, their experience of union activism. Many of the women I have interviewed had little or no history of union involvement prior to their financial union activism. Thus their experiences of finance sector unionism were often profound and dramatically different from any previous work or family experience -- often initially intimidating, but ultimately personally rewarding, even when, as in the case of some (but not all) of the women, their husbands, siblings or parents did not understand, were not interested in, or were actively hostile towards, their union work. Furthermore, the women's union activities have had a broader impact on their lives -- women told me of their increased knowledge, skills and self-confidence, as well as an enhanced understanding of and commitment to interpersonal relationships in and outside of work. Those women involved in strikes found that, despite the hardships entailed by decreased income, picketing in often inclement weather, and the stress and uncertainty of the strikes' outcomes, the solidarity generated by acting together to challenge the injustice of their employers lasted long after the strike, giving them the confidence and courage to stand up to their employers whenever necessary. Moreover, several women, identified by their co-workers and themselves as having developed into particularly effective union leaders, have left their employment in the finance sector to work with other unions. Experiences such as these have been shared with me by women across Canada, in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia, in small towns and large cities, in tiny bank branches and large bank data centres.

What I have also learned from women finance sector workers' stories is that, as a consequence of their unionization experiences and strategies, several women have developed and articulated analyses to explain the limited success (6) of, and the potential for, the unionization of financial workers. Women union activists are well aware of the powerful resistance they face from financial institutions, the fear of unionization among the majority of financial workers, and the sexism inherent in the mainstream labour movement which has often made it difficult for financial workers to have their voices heard and their workplace needs met (for more details, see Baker, 1989, 1993b, 1995). They have drawn on their growing union expertise to understand and fight for what they want in contract negotiations with banks and credit unions, and to claim institutional space within mainstream unions which have been reluctant to welcome them. (7) Additionally, some finance sector union activists have become sufficiently disillusioned with mainstream unions that they created their own alternative, feminist union within the Service, Office, Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC), designed to meet the specific needs of women workers in the finance sector. (For the story of this union, its remarkable successes in the late 1970s and its eventual decline, see The Bank Book Collective, 1979.) Whatever alternative they have pursued, women union activists in the finance sector recognize that, if finance sector unionization is to be more than sporadically successful, the energy and resources of an existing union -- or in the hopes of some, an entirely new, finance sector union -- must be willingly and systematically applied to the task of organizing the thousands of unorganized, and predominantly female, finance sector workers across Canada.

As an academic, I have engaged with these women's voices in at least two ways: in the act of research itself, as interviews, and in the act of "writing up" my research in conference papers, journal articles, and so forth. Here I will speak about each of these engagements, emphasizing the latter, because I have found my textual presentation of women's voices to be more problematic.

Interviewing women financial workers has been of great pleasure and benefit to me, for three reasons. First, it has given me the opportunity to meet with and learn about the lives of many remarkable women. Second, and more pragmatically, only because these women have agreed to be interviewed by me have I been able to carry out my research -- and this, of course, raises the issue, acknowledged and discussed by many feminist researchers, of the possibilities for exploitation inherent in the research relationship. Third, I have belatedly learned a great deal about myself in doing the research -- in particular, about my capacities and role as a researcher and my interest in and knowledge of unionization.

This final point, while as important as the first two, is one to which I gave relatively little thought until the past few months. As I will suggest below, this lack of reflection has had serious consequences for my ability to fully appreciate the complexities of the dynamic to which I referred earlier -- that is, the dynamic among women's voices, experiences, analysis and the researcher-subject relationship. I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering, and worrying, about the impact of my research on my research participants, and much less time reflecting upon how the research -- its process and outcomes -- has affected me. Consequently, throughout the interviews with my research participants, I was well aware of my relative privilege and freedom as an academic, in contrast to the oppressive constraints experienced by my research participants -- constraints imposed by the structure and routine of their jobs, fear of job loss and job transformation, and fear of management reprisals for their union activity. I realized that the very act of their participation in an interview with me was on the one hand fraught with risk for them, but on the other hand a relatively rare and welcome opportunity for them to talk about their union experiences with an interested and supportive person. I therefore tried my best to ensure that each interview was a dialogue, conducted at a place and time convenient to my research participants, that my research participants' questions were as welcome as their responses to my questions, and that I was as forthcoming as possible about the purposes of my research and my own more wide-ranging interest in, and opinions about, unions.

My lack of introspection through much of the time during which I have conducted this research is somewhat surprising to me, given that much of my enthusiasm for my research grew out of my own experience as a union activist in graduate school. Over a period of four years while doing my doctorate in anthropology I was a department steward, member of the grievance and negotiating committees, and local president of a 2100-member union local of teaching assistants. During that period I underwent significant personal, social and political changes. I began my doctorate in a rather uncertain state of mind, unsure of my potential as an anthropologist and unfamiliar with the people who would be my professors and peers. My Master's degree two years earlier at the same large university had been a personal and intellectual disaster, and I was hoping, with my doctorate, to move in new, more rewarding directions. My union experience as a doctoral student was transformative for me. I developed organizational and negotiation skills, gained an in-depth knowledge of contract language and a familiarity with labour law, learned how to deal with university and city media, expanded my sphere of acquaintances and cultivated several close personal relationships which have endured to this day.

Clearly, my own union experiences and those of the women financial workers I have interviewed share some commonalities, although certainly the differences -- type and size of unions, our respective educational and class backgrounds, and the fact that mine was a short-term and theirs a longterm term commitment to a union, to name a few -- are not to be underestimated. Furthermore, both sets of experiences have had a continuing impact on my life, in that I am, at the university where I am employed, an active member of my union. As I reflect on all of these influences on my life, I realize that union activism is a source, and perhaps the primary source, of political, social, academic and personal satisfaction for me. Thus my ongoing involvement in unions has an impact on and is influenced by my research with financial workers who are union activists. Consequently, my interest in women union activists' lives and experiences is academic, political and personal. I am fascinated by their struggles and triumphs, individually as well as collectively, I am delighted to be their acquaintance (although I would not call any close friends), I want them to succeed in their goal of unionizing all financial workers in Canada, and I want to have a part to play in telling their story, or "getting the word out."

In the process of "getting the word out," the oral and written aspects of my research, and my political and research interests in unionization, have come together. In explaining the purpose of my research to the women union activists I interviewed, I asked them: what can I as an academic researcher do in support of your union activity in particular, and of unionization of financial workers more generally? I received two responses: first, because as an academic I have the resources to research and write, I was asked to "get the word out" about finance sector workers' unionization efforts; second, because I have material resources to travel and talk with financial workers across Canada, I was invited to pass the union activists' experiences on to other financial workers, to act as a "conduit" of information for them. Given that finance sector workers' union locals are so geographically dispersed, and that the locals are found in a variety of unions among which there is little regular communication, women finance sector union activists I have spoken to in different parts of Canada have had very little knowledge about the events and activities in which their counterparts in other areas are engaged.

I have discussed the pros and cons of my role as "conduit" in a previous article (Baker, 1993a). Here I want to focus on my efforts to "get the word out" by representing textually these women unionists' stories and struggles. My current reflections on these efforts generated the questions I raised at the beginning of this article. These general questions are complicated by a more specific question arising from the women unionists' request: that is, get the word out to whom? I understood the original intent of that request to be that I inform other unionists, and by extension other working people, of the struggles finance sector workers are undergoing. This request seemed quite compatible with my aim to write and publish about the union activism of finance sector workers. This request also reminded me of the importance of not only faithfully reflecting and reporting on women's experiences, but writing accessibly about those experiences as well.

Additionally, however, I have come to realize that "getting the word out" in writing is more complex a task than I originally assumed. For as well as asking, "get the word out to whom?" I now add the question "whose word(s) am I getting out?" This is the point to which my introspection, my developing understanding of how this research has affected me, has taken me. Only by thoroughly understanding how my personal and political interests in unionism have affected my research, but also have grown and evolved as a consequence of my research, can I analyze how and why I have "heard" and "written" women's voices as I have. "Giving voice" is most definitely not enough.

My growing realization of the complex relationship between "getting the word out" and attempting to answer the question "whose word(s) am I getting out?" was heightened when, as part of the process of writing this article, I re-examined two academic articles I have written within the past several years, two products of my efforts to document the voices of women finance sector unionists. In these articles I compare and contrast individual women's stories of their finance sector union activism. (8) One article (Baker, 1995) is an explicit attempt to utilize a life history approach in understanding the unionization of financial institutions from the perspectives of six women bank workers who were union activists and leaders, and the consequences of their activism for their lives as a whole.

Of these six women, four were involved in a successful and highly publicized strike at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Visa Centre in Toronto in 1985-86, and one other in another not-so-successful but well-publicized bank workers' strike at the Bank of Commerce in Antigonish in 1987-88. Thus, an emphasis in the article is on the intense stresses, uncertainties, small and large victories, and solidarity that developed among finance sector workers during these strikes, these women's leadership roles under extraordinary circumstances, and the profound personal, professional and political impact that their union involvement had on them. In the article I also compare and contrast the women's different experiences of family and (urban vs. rural) community networks and support and the relationship of those networks to the women's success in their unions. This article appears in a book about feminist anthropological research and the ethnographic representation of women's lives. An emphasis on women's stories in their own words was welcomed and encouraged by the editors, as was explicit attention to the writing of feminist anthropology.

The other article (Baker, 1993b) appeared in a collection of writings concerned with women's involvement in, and contributions toward, the changing Canadian labour movement. In this article I discussed interviews I conducted in 1991 with four financial workers: two women from the same town in Nova Scotia, friends and colleagues in their then-current finance sector union struggles within mainstream unions; and two women in Vancouver, also friends whose finance sector union experiences were with SORWUC in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This article was, in essence, my attempt to explore the ways in which activism in finance sector unions has been meaningful for them and transformative of their lives, through examining brief histories of each woman's personal, political and working lives and the differences and similarities among them in background, geographical location and union experience. As in my first article, mentioned above, I hoped that the women who are the subjects of this article would largely "speak for themselves" through extensive quotations I included in early drafts of the article, because they had so many interesting and valuable things to say about finance sector unionism and women's empowerment. Moreover, in their introduction to the collection, the editors themselves recognized the power of women's voices in expanding our understanding of trade unionism:

...the first section [of the book] focuses on case studies of union militancy and activism that highlight the experiences of individual women in three areas of female-dominated work: nursing, banking, and retailing. We begin with these chapters because the compelling voices of women unionists are rarely heard in the discourse on unions, particularly in academic analysis. This commitment to hearing silenced voices is deeply embedded in the scholarly traditions of women's studies. Indeed, the emphasis on letting women "speak for themselves" has been part of an epistemological challenge to social-science methodology, which has been concerned about the absence of women's voices and experience, about the assumption that men's experience is generic, and about the tendency for "experts" to interpret women's experience for them. (Briskin and McDermott, 1993, p. 17)

However, the published version of this article contained substantially fewer direct quotations from the women themselves than I had originally included. Reviewers advised me to cut back on these direct remarks and to provide more of my own analysis in the article, and their advice carried the day in shaping my final product and enabling the article to be published.

My initial reaction to this advice was disappointment. I felt that my research participants had much more to contribute to our understanding of finance sector union activism than I did. I was, after all, merely "getting the(ir) word(s) out," a task I strove to accomplish in both of these articles. I relied very heavily in both articles on the women's own words to "tell their stories." I took a fairly literal approach in answering the question, what does it mean to document women's voices. I believed that if I somehow included "enough" quotations from my interviews with women finance sector workers in my writing, their stories, and their lives, would be self-evident. I certainly assumed that it was possible for me to document their lives in written form.

Upon further reflection, however, and in consideration of the various issues mentioned here which other feminist researchers have been raising, it has become clear to me that I was resisting acknowledging, and hearing, my own analytical voice in these articles, which no number of quotations from my research participants could erase. On the contrary, my choice of particular quotations -- and indeed my desire to include as many "meaningful" or "appropriate" quotations (as defined by me) as I could -- served to reinforce the types of analysis I wanted to do, the kinds of articles I wanted to write. These are articles about women's growth, change, their passion for union activism, their (sometimes reluctant) role as leaders, their visions and hopes for unions in the future -- these are their stories, but they are my stories as well, literally as well as analytically. They contain the particularities of my life -- my experiences, views, goals and research agendas -- as well as theirs. My background, experiences and the social framework within which I live have all contributed to shaping my writing, my research topics, and the directions my research has taken, intellectually, politically and methodologically. But in my efforts to try to compensate for the imbalance in power and privilege between us by somehow "hiding behind" their words in the ostensibly laudable guise of "getting the(ir) word(s) out," I lost sight of my ultimate privilege and a fundamental paradox of my research -- that I was "giving" these women voice and "letting them" speak for themselves. Consequently, privilege indeed limited my ability to understand my research participants' experiences and voices as well as, and in conjunction with, my own.


It is difficult to conclude what is, I hope, a continuous process -- that is, an ongoing critical evaluation of what I write about women, how I write, and why. As part of this process, I return to the questions I raised at the outset of this paper and try to answer them, particularly with reference to my own research, so that these answers can guide how I do, and will continue to, hear and write women's voices.

First I will comment on the questions of what it means to document women's voices, how to "translate" those voices into written academic text, and what is the place, or role, of the feminist researcher's voice in the research. My answer to these questions has to take into account the obvious fact that women who participate in research are not simply "voices," but persons as well. Consequently they are potentially subject to various forms of manipulation and exploitation regardless of whether the researcher is well-intentioned or not. In my case, simply because the research project is my own, I have made choices oriented to my research goals and interests: choices of interview questions in which I am interested, choices of which responses to record in written form, and how to record them. The resulting written texts do not, and cannot, simply "give women voice." They are constructions, interpretations of facts, stories, descriptions and opinion, amalgams of experience, research and theory, manipulated by myself and including a multiplicity of complexly interwoven voices: those of the women who are subjects of the research, and my (often analytical, always subjective) authorial voice. Changing the authorship to include, for example, all women who participate in a research project -- in an effort to make the writing a truly collaborative effort -- does not eliminate the writing's manipulated character, but rather expands the number involved in the manipulation. No text presents anyone's complete reality, or entire voice -- but it does present, often in very complex ways, parts of more voices than I, at least, have generally acknowledged.

Second, when acknowledging the complex interweaving of voices in feminist research we must be careful to recognize the imbalances among the voices heard and the ways in which that imbalance is reflected in our written texts. As feminist researchers, the manner in which we write about women may not always meet the standards or expectations of those for whom we write. We occupy different social locations, have different life experiences and different agendas from those of our research participants. For example, despite my willingness to "get the word out" for financial union activists, I attempt in my writing to reach academic audiences as well. In addition to being a unionist with desires and experiences of activism and personal transformation that I share with the women union activists with whom I have worked (experiences and desires which appear, however indirectly but necessarily, in the articles I write), I am an academic with a job in a university -- which involves, in part, presenting papers at academic conferences and publishing in academic journals. I generally try in my writing to satisfy both audiences -- the working people and trade unionists that financial workers would have me reach, and my academic peers. In so far as I am successful, however, my writing is a compromise favouring the latter audience. Since I (and the reviewers who evaluate my work) have final control over the written product, if I want to be published my interpretations will be to a large extent designed to satisfy the standards of my profession.

Third, is it possible for a feminist researcher to document any woman's voice other than her own? With regard to the relationship between the feminist researcher's voice and other women's voices in research, it is clear that, whether acknowledged or not, the researcher's voice is an integral part of the research in all its phases, including the written text. Efforts to make that voice invisible do not make the research more "objective" or even "truer" in its documentation of other women's voices and lives. Rather, those efforts can compromise the honesty of the research. Furthermore, as many feminist researchers now recognize, understanding and being explicit about women's diversity -- including the experiences of the researcher -- is central to feminist research (see Moore, 1988). As Cotterill and Letherby (1993) and Gorelick (1996) suggest, feminist research produces a complex weave of the stories and voices of both the researcher and other research participants. We cannot appreciate that weave if we ignore some of the fibres. As my earlier account of the development of my own research suggests, I have not always heeded this advice.

Fourth, as a consequence of admitting to the complexities of the research we undertake and the stories about which we write, we become increasingly aware of how we are changed in doing research. The nature of some of these changes is well expressed by Cohen (1992, p. 223), who, while referring specifically to the impact of anthropological fieldwork, speaks to the conduct of feminist research as well:

It is a commonplace of fieldwork experience that we learn a good deal about ourselves while struggling to understand others. This self-discovery does not concern only our hitherto unsuspected resourcefulness, durability and ingenuity; it is also that, by struggling to understand other people's complexities, we are brought face-to-face with our own.

I have no doubt that in one respect at least, my research with women finance sector union activists has changed me, in that it challenges and clarifies my own commitments as a union activist and enhances my abilities to be an effective and knowledgeable union member. My research has also changed, and will continue to change, my understanding of the meaning of, and my voice in, research itself. However, as I believe this article itself illustrates, change in these latter areas is neither clear-cut nor straightforward and continues to be a struggle for me, since my privileged position as researcher, through which in varying ways I attempt to control what research I do, with whom, and in what way(s) I do it, always threatens to obscure (to some extent, at least) my self-analysis and introspection and to muffle the sound of my voice.

Finally, I have come to see that, while the documentation of women's voices is integral to feminist research, its implementation is not straightforward and cannot be taken for granted. I am not suggesting, however, that writing about women's stories is an impossible task. Rather, in my own experience of research, and in what others have said about research, I have found that documenting women's voices is and should be much more than a matter of "letting" women "speak" in direct quotations liberally sprinkled throughout an article or monograph. Simply "giving voice" to women is not enough; indeed, it is impossible and undesirable. Hearing and writing women's voices involves acknowledging and analyzing the contributions of and relationships among all those involved in the research. This is what gives feminist research its intensity and authenticity. We may not always be aware of the broad social forces or individual particularities which limit and shape our analyses or reinforce our privilege and control over our research participants. Nevertheless, we must struggle to increase our awareness, challenge these limits and create new analyses. And we must make that worthwhile struggle part of our writing.


The research for this article was made possible by a Women and Work Strategic Research Grant (1991-95) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and by an Internal Research Grant (1994-97) from Mount Saint Vincent University. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers of this paper for their most insightful and helpful suggestions, and Melanie Randall at RFR/DRF for her guidance and support. Responsibility for the final product is, of course, my own.


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(1) . For an elaboration on these ideas, see Du Bois, 1983; Klein, 1983; Harding, 1987; Maguire, 1987; Cook and Fonow, 1990/1986; Nielsen, 1990b; Stanley and Wise, 1990; Westkott, 1990/1979; Fonow and Cook, 1991; Mies, 1983, 1991; Reinharz, 1992.

(2) . See, for example, Grele, 1975; Allen and Montell, 1981; Langness and Frank, 1981; Shostak, 1981; Henige, 1982; Plummer, 1983; Geiger, 1986; The Personal Narratives Group, 1989; Anderson et al., 1990; Gluck and Patai, 1991; Smith, 1993; Stivers, 1993; Belle, 1994; Hornstein, 1994; Stewart, 1994.

(3) . See also McRobbie (1982) for a relatively early commentary on the partiality and political nature of feminist research in its portrayal of social realities.

(4) . Note, however, that not all feminist researchers agree that trust, equality and friendship can or should be the outcomes of a relationship between a feminist researcher and the women she interviews. For very different views on this matter, see Oakley (1981) and Cotterill (1992). Cotterill, in her critique of Oakley's work on interviewing women, argues that women are not simply connected by a common experience of oppression, which would make possible a non-hierarchical and non-manipulative research relationship among women; rather, women experience oppression in different forms, dependent upon, for example, their social class, ethnic background, age and disability, and these different experiences influence the research relationship in a variety of ways.

(5) . Since 1992 my interest in the impact of financial sector unionism on women has expanded to include comparative research; for example, I spent the months of September through to the beginning of December 1995 doing research in Australia, interviewing unionists (mainly women) in the Finance Sector Union there.

(6) . Efforts to unionize Canada's financial institutions have met with little success; fewer than approximately 5 percent of all financial workers in Canada are unionized (Statistics Canada, 1994, p. 38).

(7) . Mainstream unions which have been most recently involved in organizing finance sector workers include the United Bank Employees (a direct charter of the Canadian Labour Congress), the United Steelworkers of America, the Canadian Auto Workers, and the British Columbia Government Employees' Union.

(8) . In my most recent, comparative research in late 1995, I also attempted to "get the word out" about Canadian women financial workers' activism through papers, seminars and discussions with their Australian counterparts and with Australian academics interested in labour issues.
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Date:Mar 22, 1998
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