By Gail G. Campbell
In 1992, the Canadian Committee on Women’s History and Status of Women Canada produced a newsletter to announce and promote our first Women’s History Month. On 9 March of that year, as part of the celebrations of Canada’s 125th birthday, the Honourable Mary Collins, federal Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, had declared October to be Women’s History Month. Each year since that time, the government has designated a theme to celebrate the contributions of women, past and present, who have helped to shape our country.
The idea for Women’s History Month was suggested by women’s organisations and women in the academic community, as a way of publicly recognising the significant, often overlooked contributions of women to Canadian society. It was not a new idea. Since 1988, the United States has celebrated March as Women’s History Month. And when, in 2000, Australia inaugurated its first Women’s History Month, it also encompassed International Women’s Day on 8 March. In Canada, October was chosen to include the celebration of the anniversary on 18 October of the decision in the court case Edwards v. Canada, known as the Persons Case, which led, in 1929, to the recognition of Canadian women as persons under the law.
At the 25th anniversary of Women’s History Month we may consider what the founders were seeking to achieve and whether our aims coincide with theirs. They stated:
Women’s History Month will provide an opportunity to recognise the achievements of women from all backgrounds and in all areas of endeavour throughout our history. These are achievements which have often been overlooked in standard history books, because history has traditionally focused on political, military and economic leaders and events, largely dominated by men. Women’s History Month will expand our view of the past and help answer the question, “What were the women doing?”
As Nellie McClung, one of the major players in the “Persons Case”, once said, “people must know the past to understand the present and face the future”. Women’s History Month will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of women’s diverse roles in society… [Y]oung women and men will have the chance to learn about positive female role models, an exercise which has the power to alter their perceptions about what women have done and can do.
They saw Women’s History Month as “an opportunity for women to tell their stories – to celebrate women’s accomplishments and their role in shaping Canadian society…[as] an opportunity to make Canadian history complete!” In evaluating the success of Women’s History Month, we should remember that, by 1992, Women’s History was well established in Canadian universities, and Women’s Studies programmes were coming into their own.
The newsletter listed an impressive number of selected NFB videos and films featuring women. Suggested readings on women’s history included the survey text, Canadian Women: A History, published in 1988, and Diana Pedersen’s exhaustive bibliography of the history of women in Canada, Changing Women, Changing History, published in 1992. There were books on women and science, women and politics, women and work. And there were books on Quebec women, Ontario women and Prairie women. There were no books on Atlantic Canadian women on the list. Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton’s first edited collection on Maritime women would not be published until 1994. But there were also no books listed for Newfoundland or B.C.
The entire tenor of that first newsletter, written largely by academics, from the stated purpose of Women’s History Month to the suggested activities, implied the opportunity for outreach. Those who may not have thought about Women’s History Month in a while might check out the website for the 2017 celebration: http://www.swc-fc.gc.ca/commemoration/whm-mhf/index-en.html. In the old days, when posters showed up in our mailbox, rather than only on line, the need to plan an event perhaps seemed more pressing.
My experience with Women’s History Month began in 1992, with a request from Ellen King, deputy minister in the provincial government and head of New Brunswick’s Women’s Directorate, to give a public lecture focussing on the history of New Brunswick women. By the following year, budget cuts had eliminated the New Brunswick Women’s Directorate. Possibly that, coupled with the remarkable public interest in my talk the previous year, encouraged me to plan a celebration for the second ‘Women’s History Month’. The theme selected by Status of Women Canada in 1993 was ‘Women and Work’. Through events and celebrations across the country, the sponsors hoped that Canadians would gain a greater understanding of and attach a greater value to the historic contributions made by women through their paid and unpaid work. How better to achieve this goal than by allowing women to speak for themselves? Labelling the event ‘In Their Own Words’, I went looking for those words and I found them, in diaries and letters written by New Brunswick women: scattered references to the work they were doing, both inside and outside the home.
In organizing and presenting an hour of public readings from New Brunswick women’s diaries and letters, I had a good deal of support and encouragement. Marion Beyea, then Provincial Archivist, provided the venue that year and for several years to follow. Ruth Grattan and Twila Buttimer at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and Mary Flagg at the University of New Brunswick Archives identified diaries and letters I might otherwise have overlooked. My women colleagues in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick, Gillian Thompson and Beverly Lemire, offered encouragement and their voices as readers. And our graduate and undergraduate student readers made that first event, in 1993, a resounding success. It prepared the way for an annual series, although the focus later changed to include more than New Brunswick women. Over the years, a growing number of other women colleagues also leant their voices. Members of my department, University librarians, colleagues at St Thomas University and graduate students all supplied readings. Innumerable undergraduate and graduate students volunteered to be readers of a wide range of women’s writings at our annual celebrations of Women’s History Month.
My book, based on an analysis of the diaries of twenty-eight women, had its roots in two decades of celebrations of Women’s History Month. So it seemed fitting to revisit an old formula this month, and I invite anyone who happens to be in Fredericton to come along this Friday afternoon and celebrate with us. (Readers of this blog may also be interested in a podcast discussion of one of the diaries read at our first Women’s History Month Celebration: http://champlainsociety.utpjournals.press/witness-to-yesterday)
In Their Own Words: Readings from the Diaries and Letters of Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick Women
Presented by students and faculty of the Department of History, UNB,
at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
23 Dineen Drive, UNB campus
3:00 p.m., Friday, 20 October 2017
An event in celebration of Women’s History Month
and of the book written by
Professor Emerita Gail G. Campbell
“I wish to keep a record”: Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick Women Diarists and their World (University of Toronto Press, 2017)
To be followed by a reception
Book sales by Westminster Books
Sponsored by the Department of History, UNB,
and the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
All are welcome
Gail G. Campbell is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick and a former editor of Acadiensis. She recently published “I wish to keep a record”: Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick Women Diarists and Their World with the University of Toronto Press.