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Modesty and Meaning: Women in Alberta Local Histories

by Nanci Langford, Ph.D.

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One of the significant contributions of the vast array of almost 3,000 local histories published in Alberta is that they document the lives of ordinary people, While this may not seem special to most who read them, to historians of Canadian women, the local history contains information and images not found anywhere else in Alberta’s documentary archives.1 These histories contain accounts of women’s community activities, women’s organizations, women schoolteachers, and women in families which would never have been part of the public record if development of local histories had not been undertaken. Historians of women and children in Canada are disabled from the outset by the paucity of sources available to them, so local histories, however time consuming they are to search, provide information that is valuable and rarely found elsewhere. They are not without problems however. One of their limitations is that women have traditionally been far too modest in telling their own life stories. Anyone who has conducted oral histories with women can describe how most women (certainly not all) speak about husbands, children and other relatives and their activities and accomplishments, and are reluctant to talk about themselves. Their own stories and the meanings of events and experiences in their lives, is shared only after much prompting and reassurances that these too are important. And women often select what they share based on what they believe someone else will approve, there is a self-censoring that occurs based on their perception of the audience receiving the message. I think these tendencies influence the development of local histories. These books are usually put together with significant input from women as committee members, editors, researchers and authors, of their own and their family’s stories, as well as the official story of the community at large. Still the documented contributions of women to community and family are at best understated and often invisible. Also, when women’s work is acknowledged, particularly during the homestead years, as both Stiles and Langford have pointed out, women are usually cast in supporting roles in the settlement enterprise.2 In the production of community histories, women reproduce the values and biases of the social milieu in which they have lived in the ways they choose to organize and recreate cultural memory. They are conscious of the need to please the community at large and modesty mediates. The reality and nature of a women’s culture in prairie communities is largely absent, though we catch glimpses of it in photographs, and in accounts of women’s groups such as Ladies’ Aid groups, Women’s Institute or the United Farm Women of Alberta. There are exceptions to this general condition, but they are rare and small in impact. Exceptions include the publication of women’s diary excerpts in community histories, or the addition of a woman’s memoir of her childhood or a particular event in her life.3

When original voices are heard, the meaning of events and experiences are often shared, not just a description. This is another limitation of community local histories. Many descriptions of people and events are presented, but we learn little of their significance, their impact, their meaning in people’s lives. There are two reasons for the heavy emphasis on description alone. One is the recognition of the history as a public account, and not a place for personal expression. Straight description is a safe and chosen form. The second is that personal accounts of the settlement years, written by the first generation of men and women to settle the land, are rare and scattered relative to the numbers of people who actually lived this experience and to the chronicles of homestead life written by subsequent generations. Second and third generation accounts are not entirely without meaning. Well –written stories that demonstrate the relationships between people in families and communities, that recreate how they live and work together and that integrate all members of the community into the story are also sharing meaning.4

Why is articulation of personal meaning important? I believe it is the only way we can grasp and begin to understand a little what it means to be that person, in that specific historical moment, and to be clear then about whose story we are telling. We learn, for example, that for Eliza Wilson, as she wrote in her dairy, the significance of installing her first curtains in her little shack at Circus Coulee is not just about making a home more attractive.5 For her, these curtains are symbolic of permanence, of hope, of home, and of her own female presence in what feels to her like a male world of ranching. We understand from this brief anecdote a little about who she is, and what this first home really meant to Eliza. It becomes the framework of understanding for many of the comments and entries she will subsequently provide in her diary. In introducing the diary excerpts of Dorothy Giles in Sod Shacks and Wagon Tracks , her daughters write: “Her diary tells of the immediate response of family and neighbours [when the Giles’ home burnt] – giving a realistic view of life in a rural community.”6 These first person accounts are valuable in helping us remain true to the perceptions and meanings of events in people’s lives as they experienced them, not as we have imagined them or changed them subtly over time. Many personal accounts challenge the traditional interpretations of historical periods and the people who lived them that we have learned from popular culture. They present us with contradictions and with diverse experiences that do not fit the hegemonic picture with which we have become comfortable. We need to be open to those possibilities, and to learn somehow to incorporate them more fully in future community history work.

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