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Lindsey McMaster: Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women.

Lindsey McMaster, Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2008)

LINDSEY McMASTER has contributed a refreshing new interdisciplinary analysis of representations of urban working girls in western Canada at the turn of the 20th century. By placing working-class white girls at the centre of the frame during a period of social and cultural change in western Canadian history, McMaster gives these young women agency and cultural power. Her work balances the emphasis on working girls as objects of exploitation and reform in existing interpretations of women's work and activism, with a closer attention to their active position on the transformative edge of gender, class, and ethnic relations in the West.

McMaster argues that representations of working girls took on a particular power and meaning in western Canada, still emerging from its frontier status. Rapid population growth, immigration, industrialization, and a statistical preponderance of men (particularly young single men) render the western experience of gender relations distinctive. This, while not an entirely new argument, is persuasive as far as it goes, and is more than justification enough to re-visit the working girl phenomenon from a western perspective. However, region is a more complex reality than the book sometimes attests. Differences between cities like Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon are de-emphasized in favour of the categorical West. This might be a less significant problem if McMaster had drawn more consistently from a range of sources and examples from a variety of western Canadian cities. In discussing representations of women in fiction, for example, McMaster has chosen works that depict women in Vancouver, and in some cases eastern Canada, but none that discuss working girls in Winnipeg, the West's major metropolis in this period.

McMaster's fresh deployment of North American scholarship on working girls, including that of Carolyn Strange, Kathy Peiss, and Nan Enstad, as well as the insights of working-class cultural historians such as Michael Denning, demonstrates the ongoing potential for working-class history of a cultural studies approach. The book is not slavishly focused on discourse and subtly employs critical theory in a way that will make most historians (and their students) comfortable. McMaster displays a facility in analyzing texts of a diverse variety, choosing to look not only at the words of social reformers and liberal critics, but also those of the labour press, literary sources, and autobiography. Literary representations, according to McMaster, "transcend the narrow view of the working girls that dominates the reform rhetoric about her," and allow the reader a sense of "women's individual choices, attitudes, and outlooks." (6) It is her attention to poems, novels, and autobiographical texts that most contribute to the book's originality. Much of this was new material to me: I look forward to tracking down and reading the 1919 autobiography of prostitute Madeleine Blair, for example. Perhaps it is to McMaster's credit that I began thinking of other possible texts worth re-reading for their insights into the lives of working girls, radicals, and other marginal women, such as Francis Marion Beynon's Aleta Day, or Douglas Durkin's The Magpie.

McMaster is a dexterous writer and interpreter of her sources, and I especially appreciated her light touch and attention to fun, passion, and social interaction. Her discussion of women in the Winnipeg General Strike (ever a well-trod subject) is genuinely new. It is a significant achievement to so fluidly weave together a study that discusses everything from domestic and factory work, sexual harassment, and women's picket line violence to working girls' fashion, courting, and dime novels.

McMaster demonstrates that conversations taking place in the broader (mostly print) culture can tell us a lot about the individual lives of working women, and the critical and contested space they occupied between the gendered ideals of domesticity and the world of work for women. Although poverty and vulnerability are not ignored, working girls are by no means passive victims of industrial capitalism, social reformers, or a male-dominated labour movement. They are feisty resistors and cultural producers; key interpreters of a new urban reality. A society coming to terms with changing gender and sexual norms made working girls the object of considerable interest, criticism, and fascination. The ease with which working girls seemed to negotiate new boundaries of sexual propriety in their dress, comportment, and behaviour was "baffling" to middle-class observers, McMaster argues, (with echoes of Dick Hebdige, 102) At least some social commentary and observation was apparently based in an envy of working girls' freedom and rebelliousness, and the contradictory desire to both mimic and scorn their persona. In the context of the West, which was simultaneously seeking to shed its frontier status and establish its economic and social bona fides, the trangressive and disruptive role played by working girls was, McMaster argues, a culturally potent force.

This book essentially deals with representations of white working girls. It does not adequately account for representations of the work, leisure, or activism of those on the margins or outside of the category 'white.' The author on occasion references, for example, the important role played by Aboriginal women in BC industries such as salmon canneries, but does not position the social discourse about Aboriginal women workers in relation to representations of white working girls. More attention to the racialized position of Aboriginal women might have been useful for McMaster's project, given the fluidity of racial constructs in the West during a period of Aboriginal displacement and high settler immigration. There are other windows of opportunity for looking more closely at the 'othering' of immigrant women workers in the book, such as the depiction of 'foreign' women during the Winnipeg General Strike. As the author notes with regard to the racialization of men, non-white could apply to individuals from any number of national origins. The press in Winnipeg often attributed labour radicalism and women's violence to "foreigners," as they did the militancy of male strikers, This brings into question the primacy of gender over class and ethnicity in shaping the experience of strikers, and a statement made early in the book, that "male workers and female workers occupy utterly different conceptual spaces." (17)

Working Girls in the West fits snugly into lines of historical inquiry dealing with the West, the city, modernity and anti-modernity, gender norms and sexual regulation, social reform, and labour activism.

It does a nice job of revealing how western Canadian women were at once objects of critical scrutiny and romance, in a place considered by social commentators to be unfinished and in process. By using new sorts of primary sources and re-reading more familiar ones, McMaster shows us that working girls in the West were complex subjects for commentators who criticized, sought to understand, and valorized the working girl as an exemplar of a new modernity. Opening new avenues for research and interpretation, the book should be widely read.


University of Manitoba
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Author:Jones, Esyllt W.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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