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Women have played a large role in recording the history of Alberta. Through their letters, books, poems and articles they have recorded much of the information available on everyday life in Alberta from the early fur trade years right up until today. As we will examine in the Women section many women in Central Alberta were writers: some were professionals hired as journalists, but most were amateurs or volunteer writers. Although they wrote in a number of genres and formats, a common thread that linked them is their interest in recording the history of their local communities.

 

The first women to write about Alberta were the missionary wives and pioneer women. Often they offered the first accounts of life on the Western frontier and, thus, their accounts met with great interest in Eastern Canada and Europe. A popular subject among missionary wives was the Aboriginals and their writings often contained a moral message. For instance, Elizabeth Boyd McDougall, wife of the Methodist missionary John McDougall, wrote a short article entitled "Just a few Sentences about the Indian," which was published in 1905. In this article, she attempts to make the reader understand what she perceives to be the mindset of the Aboriginal and calls for compassion among "White People" when dealing Aboriginal land claims. Annie McDougall, Elizabeth McDougall's sister-in-law, also described the Aboriginal people of the prairies (although she did so in a speech that has been transcribed), going into detail about how they prepared food:


In the fall the Indians with all the members of their families would migrate to the prairie.  The men killed the buffalo, the women skinned then, cut the meat into long strips, and hung it on poles to dry over a little fire.  When the meat had dried on one side they turned the other side.  The meat by being completely dried was thus preserved for future use. 1

These details on the everyday chores of Aboriginal women prove to be very valuable to historians, as they are very scarce.

 

Pioneer women also wrote detailed accounts of their everyday lives. Susan Jackal's book A Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1800-1914 contains a collection of letters, essays and articles written by women on their lives on the Western frontier.  One Alberta ranch woman, Agnes Skrine, in a letter to the British press details how she spends each of her days, commenting: "I like both the work and the play here, the time out of doors and the time for coming home. I like the summer and the winter, the monotony and the change. Besides, I like a flannel shirt, and liberty." Her letter exemplifies how much of the writing coming out of the West was directed at an audience in the motherland, in Skrine's case England. Their writings often led to much discussion regarding the standard of living of women in the West.

 

Women in the 20th century have continued this trend of writing about the details of everyday life on the Prairie's.  In the communities throughout Central Alberta it is often women who have recorded the local new and histories.  For example, in our Women section, we profile journalist Marjorie Ludvigsson, a correspondent for The Lacombe Globe, The Stettler Independent and The Bashaw News who apparently always kept her ears cocked for a story while in a crowd and Nancy Ward Samson who helped to initiate the first newspaper in Hobbema, The Beaver Hills Native-Voice. We also profile women, such as Margaret Godkin, Vera Barritt, Jeane Thompson, and Helen Benson, who collect stories, write and edit the first histories of their towns or communities.  For the most part, the work of these women is as volunteers.  

 

Why is it that women are so interested in writing about their local communities?  One reason is that women do most of the communicating within communities; they visit the old-timers and collect their stories, listen for interesting bits of news in everyday conversation and make note of the important events in peoples lives, like births, deaths and marriages. They, more than men, tend to maintain links of communications between families, generations and friends and, thus, have a reserve of information on local life. Also, they, more than men, seem to be interested in everyday occurrences (although this is not always reflected in their writing) and see the need to record these details.

 

However, just because women write local histories, does not mean that they include very much information about women.  Historian Nanci Langford explains in her article "Modesty and Meaning: Women in Alberta Local Histories," that while women writers provide very detailed information on the activities and accomplishments of their husbands, children and other relatives, they are very reluctant to write about themselves. Also, they have a tendency to undermine their work by casting themselves in secondary roles to men. Even if a women had a successful career or contributed to managing the farm, it is her domestic traits that are most often described and praised in the writings. They often emphasize how through uncomplaining determination and sacrifice women helped bring their families through hard times and how women helped improve the quality of life for others. For example, Catherine McManus is described in The Tales and Trails of Millet: 


Times were difficult during the 20's and 30's but Mrs. McManus was a skilful manager and an excellent homemaker.  She was also in much demand as a midwife and assisted in bringing a number of Millet-area babies into the world.  Many a friend and neighbour was grateful to Mrs. McManus for her assistance in times of illness in their home.
2

However, despite the fact that they omit information about women and fall into gender stereotyping, these local histories are very valuable to historians of Canadian women. While they might not talk about themselves personally, they do include abundant information on women's organizations, women's community activities and women as important figures in the community, such as schoolteachers and nurses. Their tone and style provide some insight into the character and values of women and often what they do not mention speaks louder than words to many of the pressures and limitations on women.  Therefore, they provide historians with some of the rare glimpses into women's culture in Central Alberta. 

 

Sources:

  • Dempsey, Hugh.  "Women Journalists as Historians."  Alberta History 45(4) 1997: 2-8.
     

  • Jackal, Susan, ed.  A Flannel Shirt and Liberty.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982.
     

  • Langford, Nanci.  "Modesty and Meaning: Women in Alberta Local Histories."
     

  • McDougall, Annie.  "Pioneer Life in the 1870s."  Alberta History 1998 46(3): 25-27.
     

  • Millet and District Historical Society.  Tales and Trails of Millet. 1978.
     

  • Stiles, Joanna.  "Descended from Heroes: The Frontier Myth in Rural Alberta."

 

  
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