The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Happy birthday, Henrietta

Henrietta Muir Edwards (1849-1931), Reformer and Feminist Activist

Hnrietta_MuirEdwards Henrietta Muir Edwards with her husband and children, 1890. (Source: Glenbow Archives.)

Just 18 years old when Confederation took place, Henrietta Muir was inspired by the spirit of nation building and creating a civic society:

“Henrietta Muir Edwards, a modern woman, used her determination, perseverance and dedication to help improve the plight of the women of her time. Throughout her career, her concerns were transformed into direct involvement in women’s rights.

Born in Montreal in 1849, in her early years Henrietta Louise Muir developed an interest in women helping women. Raised in an affluent, cultured and religious family, Henrietta joined the women’s movement, becoming actively involved in different religious organizations and coming face-to-face with the injustices of old traditions, where the exclusion of women was widely accepted. In Canada, the United States and Europe, she pursued studies in the field of arts, which strengthened her determination to ensure recognition for women in activities to which little consideration had previously been given.

Her involvement in women’s causes took root in Montreal, where, in 1875, she and her sister Amélia founded the Working Girls’ Association (the precursor to the YWCA). During the same era, she launched the first Canadian magazine for working women, aptly entitled Working Woman of Canada, which she and her sister edited. She financed the magazine with the proceeds from her artwork, which consisted of paintings and miniatures. Following her marriage to Dr. Oliver C. Edwards and the birth of their three children, the Edwards family moved to Saskatchewan. There, Henrietta discovered her true passion for women’s rights, and became even more involved in feminist organizations.

In 1893, Henrietta Muir Edwards, together with Lady Aberdeen, founded the National Council of Women, and for nearly 35 years served as chair for Laws Governing Women and Children. Also in collaboration with Lady Aberdeen, she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses and was appointed chair of the Provincial Council of Alberta, serving in this capacity for many years. Throughout these experiences, Henrietta Muir Edwards championed many of the accomplishments of different feminist organizations and was an avid supporter of equal grounds for divorce, reform of the prison system, and allowances for women. Her major contribution to the review of provincial and federal laws relating to women earned her a reputation for knowing more about laws affecting women than even the chief justice of Canada.

In 1927, she joined forces with Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby to sign a petition requesting that the Supreme Court of Canada reinterpret the law concerning the term “person” in the British North America Act. It was not until October 18, 1929, after taking their cause to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, that a reversal of the Supreme Court decision granted Canadian women the right to be appointed to the Senate. By joining the “Famous Five”, Henrietta Muir Edwards brought to the cause of “women not officially recognized” her determination, extensive knowledge of the Canadian legal system and the prestige of having fought so many battles aimed at re-defining the position of women in Canadian society.”

— Library and Archives Canada, “Celebrating Women’s Achievements”

Women Nation Builders

“No nation rises higher than its women.”
Nellie McClung

Lest you think, based on my most recent blog posts, that it was all fun and games for the women of Confederation – frolicking in the snow, dancing the night away, fussing with their hair; that sort of thing – here is a more serious post (and I meant serious, not boring).

The serious question is this: before women had the vote – thanks Nellie! – what could they do to help build the nation?

Certainly they could still be politically active, agitate for various causes, and write about the things that mattered to them, for instance on the ‘women’s pages’ offered by various newspapers (a subject to be taken up in a later post). They could, in other words, “participate… in the ‘imagining’ of … nations as novelists, journalists, and philosophers.” Furthermore, then as now, mothering was a political as well as a social activity, and “many more women participated by creating and reproducing … nations in the minds of their children.” And they could, and did, organize “groups, movements and institutions created by women in civil society” (Vickers 4).

Suffragettes 19th century suffragettes. (Source: Creative Commons.)

Civic Minds, Civic Actions

Briefly then, here are the ways (defined by Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias) in which women participate in national processes:

  1. as biological reproducers of [national] collectivities;
  2. as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic and national groups;
  3. as actors in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as transmitters of its culture;
  4. as signifiers of ethnic and national groups – as a focus and symbol in ideological discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transformation of ethnic/national categories;
  5. as participants in national, economic, political, and military struggles. (7)

Confederation women were nation-builders by having babies and thus by literally bringing into being another generation; by acting as the guardians of the social and cultural identities of the nation; by communicating to their children and others the values, cultural and otherwise, of the nation; by serving as “symbols of cultural norms, hopes, and ideals” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 5); and by being mobilized, and mobilizing themselves, in times of national struggle.

But rather than perceive the women merely in essentialist terms as the biological reproducers of the nation, and/or as passive cultural reproducers, I want to add two further categories. Confederation women also participated in nation building:

  1. as actors in the generation of new ideas, movements, and approaches (rather than in the preservation of existing ones);
  2. as trailblazers who break out of the ‘reproductive’ mould and actively start down new paths.

Our Confederation foremothers did not just reproduce, preserve, guard, and symbolize, but also invent, create, and break away from nationalist tenets. Even without the vote. Although the vote (that on the federal level didn’t come until 1918) – thanks again Nellie et al. – sure didn’t hurt!


Works Cited

Sutherland, Robin. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Vickers, Jill. “In Search of the Citizen-Mother: Using Locke to Unravel a Modern Mystery.” Canadian Political Science Association Conference. Halifax. June 2003.

Yuval-Davis, Nira, and Floya Anthias, eds. and intro. Introduction. Woman-Nation-State. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989. 1-15.



The Muffin

“Dashing through the snow.”
Les Paul, “Jingle Bells”

Just in time, as winter is setting in – the long, cold, snowy, icy Canadian winter (am I making myself clear?) – a little heart-warming story about a roughly Confederation-era, distinctly Canadian type of woman: the muffin.

To pre-empt any speculation that a muffin is a kind of cupcake you buy at Tim Horton’s (or Starbucks, or Bridgehead, or wherever your desires take you), muffins abound in contemporary accounts of 1860s Canada.

One distinguished visitor to Canada, for instance, William Howard Russell, war correspondent extraordinaire – he had earlier reported on the Crimean War – of The Times of London, admiringly described skating “muffins” as wearing “dandy jackets and neat little breeches.”

Similarly, the sister of Governor General Sir Charles, Viscount Monck, Lady Frances Monck (who visited her brother in Canada from 1864-1865), took note of a group of well turned-out “muffins” guarding their complexions: “All the girls now wear blue veils with their fur caps, as the hot sun tans.” She also found one especially fascinating muffin on the rink, performing “most exquisite skating,” proper “poetry of motion,” who was jauntily dressed in a “red petticoat and stockings, and … a brown dress and pretty fur cap—no cloak.”

Lady_Monck Lady Frances Monck. (Source: McCord Museum.)

You say potato, …

A somewhat more disapproving visitor, however, Isabella Bird, commenting on the gay (in the contemporary sense of the word) spectacle she witnessed, noted with a frown: “It might be expected that the Bishop’s family would move in a different class of society, but no. Miss Mountain is a muffin and received officers the whole morning while pretending to be crocheting and in winter drives a tandem sleigh to Montmorency Falls. Any young lady who is not a ‘muffin’ in the winter is totally despised.”

It was, finally, W. H. Russell who explained, “A muffin is simply a lady who sits beside the male occupant of the sleigh …, and all the rest is leather and prunella.”

Well, not quite, Mr. Russell. There was a bit more to it than that.

Winter Wonderland

The muffin was a winter creature, and winter in Canada “was a magic season, a never-ending holiday, played out against the wild, sweet music of sleigh bells. It was in the garrison days at Quebec that the mythology of the Canadian winter … first began to take hold” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 29). Quebec, Montreal, Kingston – Canada’s garrison cities presented a colourful scene with officers and men in dark green and scarlet uniforms, many of them driving their own low-slung sleighs, also sporting the regimental colours. Need I spell out that our (pre-)Confederation women were delighted by their presence and attentions?

Enter the muffin. Every girl aspired to be one. Muffins sparkled, looking “very nice and bright, flying along in sleighs, with their men friends” (Monck) – those friends being the same dashing military men just mentioned.

Miss_Muffin Alice Killaly. A Picnic to Montmorenci. Captain Buzbie drives Miss Muffin. (Source: Creative Commons.)

What the ‘in’ Girl Wears

Since “muffinage” was a lot about making an impression, it’s perhaps unsurprising that “muffins had their own distinct uniform for sleigh-riding: a perky little cap made of sealskin and velvet; a scarf of finest wool, two and a half yards long, wrapped round and round the forehead and neck” (Gwyn, Private Capital 30) – the so-called “cloud” already mentioned (Diplomatic Lady).

Thus decked out, the muffins sped away to ice picnics at Montmorency Falls, to enjoy hot food and dancing. There, the “Cone,” as Lady Monck recorded, was “formed by the frozen spray from the Falls falling on a large rock out in the river. The big cone is about eighty feet high.” It was hollowed out to form a chamber and held ice sculptures along with an ice sofa and table.

Once the Governor General moved with the government to Ottawa, “the great tradition of winter fun travelled with [him]” (L. Creighton 60). At Rideau Hall, skating and tobogganing parties were held, and the fashion changed to involve what has since become a Canadian icon: the blanket coat, worn by muffins and men alike, with brightly coloured stockings, a sash, and a knitted ‘tuque.’ A muffin’s blanket coat was “cut to follow the proportions of her frame and the silhouette of her skirt,” signaling among other things an emancipatory development in the coat’s “true assimilation into women’s wear” (Stack 27).

Blanket_Coat A later, 1880s, blanket coat, tuque, sash, and snow shoes. (Source: McCord Museum.)

It’s All Fun and Games

Punishing though the Canadian winter can be – well, is – Canadians in the pre- and early Confederation era reveled in it. Everyone, it seems, skated – Montreal had two rinks, one opened in 1862, the other in 1867, illuminated in the evening by gas lamps – tobogganned, curled, sleighed, and snow-shoed. Muffins weren’t just, as Mr. Russell would have it, decorous-looking females. They skated “exquisitely” (according to Lady Monck, above), drove their own horse sleighs (remember Isabella Bird’s disapproval), including through Quebec’s narrow streets (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 31), hurled themselves in toboggans down precipitous slopes – and managed to look good in the process.

Skating_costume 1860s skating costume (unlike the blanket coat, above, still made for wide skirts). (Source: Metropolitan Museums.)

Our Confederation foremothers demonstrated that they were just as capable as their men to cope with – and relish – Canada’s inclement winter. They, too, had tenacity and determination along with the physical and mental toughness it took to build a northern nation.


Works Cited

Bird, Isabella. “Diary.” Library and Archives Canada. R12849-0-2-E.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1989.

Creighton, Luella. The Elegant Canadians. Don Mills, On.: Oxford UP, 2013.

Monck, Frances. My Canadian Leaves: an account of a visit to Canada in 1864-1865., accessed November 30, 2014.

Russell, William Howard. My Diary North and South., accessed November 30, 2014.

Stack, Eileen. “‘Very Picturesque and Very Canadian’: The Blanket Coat and Anglo-Canadian Identity in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century.” Ed. Alexandra Palmer, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. 17-40.


Stepping Out

“Baby … dance with me tonight.”
Olly Murs

This blog post should perhaps have been my first one, because without the events on which it is based (and that lie just outside my timeframe of 1865-1900), Confederation would never have happened.

The conferences in Charlottetown in September and Quebec in October of 1864 paved the way for the constitution of Canada in 1867. And one woman recorded the behind-the-scenes socializing – and there was plenty of it – in her diary: Mercy Ann Coles, the twenty-six year-old daughter of George Coles, former premier of Prince Edward Island and leader of the Liberal opposition to Confederation (PEI did not enter Confederation until 1873 because it initially found the terms unfavourable). Mercy, the eldest of “several attractive daughters, well educated, well informed, and sharp as needles,” according to George Brown, owner of the Globe newspaper (qtd. in Dann), wrote about the dinners, balls, déjeuners, and outings that made up the social side of the conferences.

Mercy_Coles Mercy Coles during her visit to Quebec in 1864. (Source: McCord Museum.)

Without her diary, “Confederation history is incomplete,” Anne Macdonald has recently argued. Mercy’s record offers “an intimate view of Canada’s movers and shakers of the time. It includes places and events that made up Canada’s social and cultural history” (31).

Province_House_Ball_1864 Dusan Kadlec, Province House Ball, 1864. (Source: Parks Canada.)

Gossip Girl

Thanks to Mercy’s diary, we know that the Confederation conferences were not just, 24/7, about serious political maneuvering.

We know, for instance, that the daughters of William Steeves, conference delegate from New Brunswick, seemed “to be the possessors of the parlour downstairs [at Government House in Charlottetown]. I think they never leave it,” Mercy noted (perhaps with some indignation). “There is a Mr. Carver who seems to be the great attraction.”

Province House Province House, location of the 1864 Charlottetown conference. (Source: Parks Canada.)

And we know that Samuel Leonard Tilley, the premier of New Brunswick and a widowed father of seven, was a hot item among the unmarried ladies: “It is rather a joke,” wrote Mercy in the context of the first big event in Quebec, “he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour.”

And we know that the would-be nation maker himself had, as usual, his game face on. Thus, Mercy wrote, “Mr. J. A. Macdonald dined with us last night. After dinner he entertained me with any amount of small talk.” Was Macdonald interested in her? Or was he wooing her father by paying attention to Mercy? Just a few days later she recorded, “I went to dinner in the evening. John A. sat along side of me. What an old Humbug he is. He brought me my dessert into the Drawing Room. The Conundrum.” Whatever the precise “conundrum” may have been that night, it is clear that John A. was fully aware of the stakes of the conferences and therefore was performing his public, political persona, even to a young single lady.

Shake That Booty

The festivities that took place at the Drawing Room in the Legislative Building in Quebec were the most sought after, and again Mercy recorded for posterity her impressions of the splendour:

“We all went down to the Drawing Room last night. Quite a crowd when we all got together. All the ladies looked very well and were quite a credit to the lower provinces. Pa, Ma, and I went together. A half dozen gentlemen wanted to take me into the room, but I preferred to go in with Papa. The Governor General stood in the middle of the room with his private secretary on his right hand. We did not require to have any [visiting] cards. The Aides announced us each time. … There were about 800 people presented.”

Spencerwood Spencer Wood, Quebec, residence of the Governor General at the time of the conferences, before the government’s move to Ottawa. (Source: Library and Archives Canada.)

Dancing figured prominently among the entertainments provided. “I went down to the Ball last night,” Mercy wrote about another evening’s fun, “such a splendid affair.” She delighted in being a desirable dancing partner: “Mr. Crowther danced with me the first quadrille. … I was engaged for every dance.”

The Congress Dances – and Advances

Mercy may well have wished to present herself as a statesman’s daughter “with imperial feminine virtues – conscious of the male gaze and playing the role of a young woman under its spell” (McDonald-Rissanen 201), but another observer, PEI delegate Edward Whelan, confirmed in his articles for the Examiner newspaper that dancing at the conferences was far from simple fun.

Calling the senior conference members “the most inveterate dancers I have ever seen,” Whelan also noted that “they are cunning fellows; and there’s no doubt that it is all done for a political purpose; they know if they can dance themselves into the affections of the wives and daughters of the country, the men will certainly become an easy conquest” (“The Life and Times”). Mercy accordingly notes in her diary after one event (that she had to sit out because of being ill), “Papa came home with every stitch of clothes wringing wet with perspiration,” having danced the night away.


Dancing, at those steamy conference balls, clearly meant putting one’s best foot forward in more than one sense.

Rather than taking the view, as male writers and critics have done in the past, that the feminine perspective offers “no great issues … to agitate the mind” (Sinclair quoted in Wright 8), Mercy’s diary demonstrates that, however civically-minded a nation, however engaged its leaders, without social energy the political apparatus might well get stuck for lack of lubrication.

P.S. Whatever Mercy may have hoped for from the conference social activities, she never married. She died in 1921 or 1922 in Charlottetown, having lived into her eighties.



Works Cited

“The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867.”, accessed November 16, 2014.

Coles, Mercy Ann. “Reminiscences of Canada in 1864.” LAC MG24-B66.

Dann, Moira. “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?” Globe and Mail, Aug. 28, 2009., accessed November 16, 2014.

McDonald-Rissanen, Mary. In the Interval of the Wave: Prince Edward Island Women’s Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Life Writing. Montreal and Kingston, London, Ithaca: MQUP, 2014.

MacDonald, Anne. “Daughters of Confederation.” Canada’s History Aug.-Sep. 2014: 30-33.

Wright, Donald. “Introduction to the Wynford Edition” of The Elegant Canadians, by Luella Creighton. Don Mills, On.: Oxford UP, 2013. 1-8.

Crowning Glories

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
Brothers Grimm

Looking at pictures of Agnes Macdonald, Lady Dufferin, and other Confederation women, how can one not notice the hair? These women’s hairstyles are astonishing!

Agnes_hair Agnes in 1873 with elegant updo. Source: Library and Archives Canada.


Dufferin_hairLady Dufferin wearing a similarly intricate hairstyle. Source: Manitoba Archives.

Isn’t that something? How long did it take to put together those styles?

Quite a while, I should think. Just take a look at the first few steps for creating an updo in the following instructions.


Going to Great Length

Canada’s women of Confederation wore large and elaborate hairstyles. (They may have been taking their cue from their American neighbours, where hairstyles had been quite plain during the Civil War era – often simply parted in the middle and pulled back – but had also gotten larger in the course of the 1860s.) It looks as though a mass of hair was needed to put together those styles, and often the women did indeed have very long hair.

Aline_Vallandri Soprano Aline Vallandri with floor-length hair.

Vallandri, in an interview for Every Woman’s Encyclopedia described as “the famous Cantatrice, who has the Most Wonderful Hair in Europe,” advised women similarly endowed to keep hair and scalp clean, but also “to avoid any excessive use of water.” Instead, she suggested “much brushing” – a practice religiously followed by women of the time – and to avoid curling tongs but to massage the head regularly. She also endorsed “cutting the hair and singeing the ends with a lighted taper [as] beneficial for the growth.”

It’s fairly obvious from Vallandri’s picture that she grew her hair all her life, and that was standard practice for Victorian women. Never mind that the sheer weight of the hair must have given them constant headaches! Hair was considered the “crowning glory” of a woman’s beauty. It was also an indicator of social class – no working woman could afford to fuss with her hair for an hour before going off to scrub floors – and of maturity. In public, only young girls wore their hair loose or in braids. Adult and married women wore it pinned up. No exceptions. Letting her hair down, literally, signified privacy and intimacy.

“Fare Thee Well, My Beloved Friend”

Another common practice was the exchange of locks of hair for sentimental reasons. In a time when travelling to see friends or relatives who had moved elsewhere wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today, and when, frankly, life expectancies were shorter and mortality rates higher, locks of hair were mementos – literally a piece – of someone loved and perhaps lost.

In L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (published in 1908 but steeped in Victorian culture), Anne asks her bosom friend Diana for “a lock of [her] jet-black tresses in parting to treasure forevermore,” when the girls believe that they are never to meet again. Anne intends to sew the lock of hair up “in a little bag and wear it around [her] neck all her life” (110, 111). She intends the lock of hair, in other words, to be an instrument for remembrance.

Little Helpers

Masses of hair might have been nice, but not everyone had them. Fake stuff to the rescue!


The appearance of luxuriant, thick, long hair could also be achieved with the use of fillers (also called “rats”) and multiple hair pieces. For instance, if the woman’s own hair was heat-damaged – the Marcel wave that relied on curling irons was invented in 1872, and curls supposedly indicated a milder, sweeter temperament – fillers and hair pieces could be deployed to create the volume and height essential for the era’s elaborate styles.


Not ratty

Hair rats could be made from a woman’s own hair.

Hairreceiver Source: Jackie Hyman

Hair receivers (ceramic or crystal) were commonly found in women’s boudoirs. Stray hairs were collected from the brush after brushing and put through the receiver’s opening for storage. Once sufficient hair had accumulated, it was rolled by hand into a tight sausage shape. The natural hair was then arranged over it and secured with pins. Voilà ! Great style.

Hairdresses (here with velvet pansies), hair wreath (with forget-me-nots), combs and pins were also used in creating the period’s styles.




The Power of Hair

Toward the end of the Victorian era, the Delineator, a popular American women’s magazine read and appreciated also by Canada’s women of Confederation, summed up the importance of women’s attention to their hair as follows:

“A potent factor in any woman‘s appearance is her coiffure. Indeed, no other item of her toilette is really so influential, either to emphasize or to lessen her natural attractiveness, since no fashion is so capable of affecting the actual expression of her countenance as is one that pertains to the arrangement of the hair. The often-admired ‘crowning glory’ may be rendered almost a disfigurement if disposed unbecomingly, while a tasteful and careful dressing of the tresses, even though they are not very beautiful, will lend a decided charm to a plain face.”

Fashions are subject to change, but the complexity of Confederation women’s hairstyles is another indicator of the (self-)discipline that was part of their lives.


Works Cited

Every Woman’s Encyclopedia., accessed November 2, 2014.

“Fashionable Hair Dressing.” Delineator, December 1894.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. New York and London: W.W. Norton Critical, 2007.


Diplomatic Lady

“She was a shy woman.”
Harold Nicholson about Lady Dufferin

In July 1872, a new wind began to blow in Ottawa that swept though all of Canada – which had grown to span the continent from coast to coast – and that emanated from Rideau Hall. Between 1867 and 1872, during the tenures of governors general Lords Monck and Lisgar, official Ottawa had been quite informal, according to contemporary sources (though Agnes Macdonald had found Lady Lisgar a bit chintzy). All that changed when the Dufferins arrived, who brought to Canada a grand social energy that bestowed a sparkle on the rough new Dominion it had not had before.

As the new governor general’s consort, Lady Dufferin – Hariot Georgina Rowan Hamilton – was not ‘Canadian’ but a diplomat’s wife, yet her interest and influence in Canada make her a Woman of Confederation. (Canadian citizenship, in any case, did not exist then; ‘Canadians,’ like the Dufferins, were British subject.)

Dufferin Source: New York City Public Library.

Falling in Love with Ottawa

Lady Dufferin, born in 1843 in a Norman castle in Northern Ireland and nurtured in grand estates, found that rough little Ottawa, and Canada, “agreed with her” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 163). Following his stint in Ottawa, Lord Dufferin, with Hariot by his side, went on to a splendid career, serving as ambassador to St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Rome, and Paris, and as viceroy in India, the jewel in the imperial crown, yet of all these postings, it was Canada that captured Lady Dufferin’s heart.

Her stay in Ottawa started ominously. After landing in Quebec, and immediately being “charmed” by the city and everything else she saw en route to the capital (Dufferin 3), she found that the “first sight of Rideau Hall did lower our spirits.” The access road to the building was “rough and ugly” and the house itself “at the land’s end” and without a view (4). Not twelve hours later, however, Lady Dufferin had already cheered up: “I dare say that in winter this place looks lovely! Our house is, they say, very warm and comfortable, and the Houses of Parliament which, after all, I do see from my windows are very beautiful … so why did I grumble? We have driven in state through the town, and have visited the Government buildings. I was delighted with the Senate, and with the Library, a large, circular room. When the House is sitting I may come and listen to debates” (4).

Political Observer

And that is exactly what she did. Like Agnes Macdonald before her, Lady Dufferin was a regular visitor to the Ladies’ Gallery in the House, actively following Canadian politics and staying, if necessary, into the early hours of the morning. She gained a reputation for animatedly reporting the proceedings to her husband (who by law was prevented from attending the debates to ensure his non-partisanship), and even acting out the speeches and gestures of individual speakers.

DufferinsLord and Lady Dufferin.

She immersed herself in Canadian life, doing charitable work and organizing amateur theatre – she herself was an enthusiastic actress – that had a “galvanic effect” on Ottawa and “spread through the town like a wild-fire” (S. Gwyn, Private Capital 174). She also threw more parties and travelled further and wider in Canada than any woman in her position had done before, ever “impatient to see more of the country and the people” (8-9). She was the first Governor General’s consort to accompany her husband on his tours.

Travel, Travel, and More Travel

Looking back to the 1870s from our current perspective, one has to admire the stamina needed to undertake all those voyages at a time when travel was anything but fast and easy. In 1872, Lady Dufferin visited Quebec and Tadoussac (where the Dufferins chose to build a summer house) as well as Toronto and Hamilton. In 1873, while pregnant with their sixth child, she went to Montreal as well as, after the birth of a daughter in May, to the Maritimes, celebrating in Charlottetown Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation.

In 1874, while Lady Dufferin was pregnant again (with their seventh and last child), she toured Ontario, delighting in rustic accommodations and tents “spread with fir-boughs, which are laid down most carefully and scientifically by the men, and make a most delightful carpet and spring mattress” (168). In 1876, the Dufferins went to British Columbia, having to rely on American rail lines (Canada’s Pacific Railway was far from completed), and in 1877 they toured Manitoba, also accessible only by American rail (and boat). Before departing Canada in 1878, they squeezed in a trip to the Eastern Townships. Just about everywhere she went, Lady Dufferin enjoyed the beautiful scenery and pleasant, friendly people. The very air she found “delicious,” feeling overall “so well and cheerful!” (12).

The Joys of Winter

Even Ottawa’s cold climate, though warranting several entries in Lady Dufferin’s journal and thus apparently a matter of some concern, did not really put her off. On one occasion she wrote, “the thermometer was 10 below zero, but the day was bright, and we did not feel the cold at all” (49). One simply “wraps oneself up like a mummy,” she declared, “and drapes one’s face in an indispensable and most becoming cloud [a long wool scarf draped round and round], and thus defies the weather” (127). Her winter-hardiness alone should make us conclude that “Lady Dufferin is one of us” (Fowler 218).

Dufferin_cloud Lady Dufferin wearing a ‘cloud.’

In later life, she suffered a series of heavy blows. Her eldest son was killed in the Boer War, another in WWI, and her third son died in an accident in 1930; her husband died in 1902, having lost his entire fortune. She lived until 1936.

A Sense of Duty

The woman that emerges from Lady Dufferin’s Canadian Journal, though, is one that impresses through its enthusiasm, optimism, sheer physical health and vigor, vivacity, and the ability to have fun. That she was prepared to be such a public persona (not just accompanying her husband but occasionally also filling in for him) is all the more remarkable as she was, at heart, private. The mark she left on Canada – through involvement in politics, federal-provincial relations, social and creative activities – is a measure, therefore, not just of her lively interest in the Dominion, but also of her sense of responsibility and duty.



Works Cited

Dufferin and Ava, The Marchioness of. My Canadian Journal. London: John Murray, 1891.

Fowler, Marian. The Embroidered Tent: Five Gentlewomen in Early Canada. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

First Wife

“I do so like to identify myself with all my Husband’s pursuits & occupations.”
Agnes Macdonald, Diary


Agnes the good, the care-taker, the preserver of him who was the hero, the arranger of domestic order and calm, the sayer of prayers. Agnes of God.

Agnes the shrew, the nay-sayer, the destroyer of all fun, the abstainer from booze (though he liked it), the enforcer of rules. Agnes the moralizer. Agnes of sourness and boredom.

Who was She?

Historians and biographers have long tried to figure out Agnes Macdonald, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s wife (and the new Canadian Dominion’s first ‘first lady’), ascribing to her a curious split – or double – personality: one, the vivacious, attentive, caring wife; the other, the humourless battle-axe inclined to stern judgments. That inability to pin Agnes down – and the consensus about her perceived multiple personality disorder – say as much about the apparent unease that has met political wives, and perhaps particularly prime ministers’ wives, in the nation’s mind, as they do about the complex character of Agnes.

Imacon Color Scanner Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Agnes Macdonald, Political Wife

A recent biography of Sir John A. credits Agnes – if perhaps somewhat grudgingly and born out of the trend to acknowledge more women in historical texts – as “a Mother of Confederation” (R. Gwyn 18). The label appears to be ‘official’ recognition of the person and role of the politician’s wife. Agnes is portrayed as always attentive to her husband’s needs and, through her care, even as having extended his life by the decade and a half he needed “to give the country a spine” (26). Even so, the split-personality view of Agnes (with all its unsympathetic characterizations) is perpetuated yet again.

Agnes certainly was closest to the centre of the whirlwind that was post-Confederation Canada. She was, after all, married to John A., but she owed her (perhaps privileged) position as much to her intimate relationship with the nation builder himself as to her own intelligence, interest in politics, and attraction to power.

During both of Macdonald’s tenures as premier, Agnes regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons. Seated in the Ladies’ Gallery, she was able to observe the proceedings (as well as to be observed in her attendances; there could be no question that she kept herself informed!). She even communicated messages and the political mood among the ladies present to her husband using the sign language they both had learned (Newman 10).

As early as July 5, 1867, just days after Confederation, Agnes noted with wry humour in her diary, “Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.” The comment isn’t just amusing. It also exposes as well as destabilizes the strict division between public and private space (that applied particularly to women), highlighting Agnes’s astute awareness of her ‘place.’ More so, in politicizing the kitchen, the very centre of domesticity, Agnes defines her domestic situation as “an active site of political negotiation and influence” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 108).

Agnes_reading Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In addition to her function in the politics of Canada – and her influence through her role as John A.’s confidante in the “political experience” of marriage (Rose 7) – Agnes also actively built the nation through her involvement in the church and in charitable organizations, such as the Ottawa Orphans’ Home. This engagement, providing examples of female participation in the public sphere, contributed to the production of civic society in the new Dominion.

Perhaps Agnes provokes a certain amount of hostility in commentators because as a woman who was highly intelligent, intellectually curious, serious-minded, and at times rather stern, she does not conform to traditional ideas of femininity. And perhaps political wives, unless they are more or less invisible, are bound to be controversial because of their closeness to power.

An Itinerant Life

Curiously, despite the uncertainties of political life, the 24 years of Agnes’s marriage to John A. were perhaps the most sedentary and stable in her life. Born Susan Agnes Bernard in 1836 to plantation owner parents in Jamaica, she experienced a series of upheavals before coming to Canada with her mother in 1854: her father’s death in 1850; farewells to two brothers whom she would never see again; a move to Britain; a further uprooting in the move to Canada. In Canada, Agnes and her mother lived with Agnes’s lawyer brother, Hewitt, who had become Macdonald’s private secretary. The job involved moving repeatedly while the government alternated locations between Toronto, Quebec City, and finally Ottawa (in 1865 – Agnes and her mother were not attracted to Ottawa; they chose to go to England instead).

Following a whirlwind romance in late 1866 to early 1867, the spinster – Agnes was thirty at the time – and the widower – Macdonald had been married before, to Isabella Clark, who had died in 1857 – were married. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born disabled and who required special care throughout her life. After Sir John A.’s death in 1891, Agnes and Mary went to live in Europe, where “they were wanderers and would continue to be such for the rest of Agnes’ life” (Reynolds 150). Agnes died in England in 1920.

Agnes_Mary Agnes and baby Mary, June 1869. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Love and Grief

In all her undertakings, Agnes was, first, John A.’s wife. She was not just interested in her “husband’s pursuits & occupations,” as she says in her diary (July 7, 1867), and not just attentive to his wellbeing, but also “head over heels in love with her brilliant husband” (S. Gwyn 192). Seen through her eyes, the intellectually edgy prime minister emerges “laughing like a schoolboy with his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown back” (July 7, 1867) or enjoying a quiet evening reading on the sofa, while Agnes rests her head on his shoulder (November 17, 1867).

How painful would it be for her to find that her contribution to Canada’s story has gone “largely unrecognized” (Sutherland, “‘Good Housekeeping’” 36). And how much more painful to find that history assesses her marriage as one of “convenience,” and John A.’s feelings for her as ones of “respect” and “loyalty” but “never stronger than these” (R. Gwyn 17, 25-26)?

It is equally possible that the easy affection Agnes and John A. shared early in their marriage was ground down by the tragedy of having a severely disabled child, as well as turned into a perhaps more profound but also more burdensome kind of love by the strain and effort invested by both, in different ways, into building a nation.



Sources and further reading

Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume II: 1867-1891, Toronto: Vintage Canada Editions, 2011.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

Macdonald, Agnes. Diary, 1867-75; 1883. LAC. Macdonald Papers, MG26A, Vol. 559A.

Newman, Lena. The John A. Macdonald Album. Plattsburg: Tundra, 1974.

Reynolds, Louise. Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990. Print.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1983.

Sutherland, Robin. “‘Good Housekeeping’: Agnes Macdonald Writes About Home and Parliament in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 35-49. Print.

—. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Zeller Thomas, Christa. “Proximity to Power: Relationality in Agnes Macdonald’s Diary.” Conference paper, 7th IABA: Life Writing and Intimate Publics, Brighton, UK, 2010.



Other Histories, Separate Stories

“I told you the truth,” I say yet again,
“Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind.

It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also;
but in the end it creates its own reality.”

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children


What makes people and events memorable?

Memorability is a big concept these days – figuring out ways to make a product (and most everything today is a commodity) stick in consumers’ minds by focusing on select characteristics – but evidently the story of the past, whether that story is one person’s or that of a group, also is a selective account, hinging on the memorability of experience.

Both ‘remembering’ and ‘recollecting’ suggest an “assembling, a bringing together of things in relation to one another” (McDermott 391), but how these things are brought together is far from a foregone conclusion. Recollection is based on social significance, which means that to become history (i.e., to be found memorable), events must be registered as significant already at the time of their occurrence. But what if that is not the case, because significance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?

In fact, nothing about what, how, why, and for whom we remember is straightforward and simple, and the recent boom in the field of “memory studies” bears evidence to that. The activity of remembering is one big puzzle. That may sound a bit strange: don’t we just remember (if we are lucky) what’s noteworthy and consequential? And as a group, don’t we just commemorate what there is to commemorate?

Not quite.


The Past is a Foreign Country

Because memory is such a complex subject, I want to linger a bit – before delving into the stories of the women of Confederation, as my blog title announces – on the difficulty and deliberate effort involved in remembering those stories. And to be sure, difficult and involved it is, because significance has been assigned (and continues to be assigned) elsewhere.

To talk about memory in the context of national remembrance, such as the anniversary of Confederation (or of international occasions, such as the World War I centenary), is to talk about ‘collective,’ ‘public,’ ‘social,’ or ‘cultural’ memory, not the individual kind. (The profusion of terms is a further indicator of the memory industry that has sprung up.) Clearly, since few of us were alive in 1867 and the years after that significant date, we have to rely, for what we remember and commemorate, on “exposure to a common reservoir of products, including photographs and documentaries, museums, … histories and novels” (Erll and Rigney 111).

And that’s just it: how is this “reservoir” produced? Who makes or selects these products? Whose images are included? Whose stories? Whose truth? Whose memories do we rely on for our selection? Even if we make use of ‘first person’ accounts by those who lived through the historic events, we have to accept those individual memories, those subjective understandings as true. ‘Eye witness’ testimony in police investigations is notoriously unreliable. Not just that, but memory is also changeable and interacts with its contemporary context – altered to fit certain circumstances – making it rather ephemeral, a palimpsest that is overwritten in consecutive recollections. And that uncertainty extends to recording events ‘in the moment’ – how often does that actually happen? And even if it did, the people recording still have to make a selection of what (they are prepared) to tell.

Individual memories of the past are then exchanged with popular ones and “established and confirmed through dialogue with others” (Glassberg 10). The resulting prevailing images – what makes them prevailing? – make up public history in the form of museums, monuments, memorials, and commemorations. This is what we remember, and this is what we assemble – or are the images perhaps imposed? – into the common history that holds us together in an “imagined community,” in Benedict Anderson’s terms, of the present and future, rooted in the foreign country of the past.

Most of us feel quite comfortable in that country, foreign though it may be. We’ve learned about it. We know what we know. We are familiar with the “national narratives that tell us what to remember.” We tend to repeat the same myths that creep up at every opportunity. Our memories are learned. Particularly during times of crisis – a war – or celebration – an anniversary, those narratives have “little competition” (Hampson).

Is that enough?

The Dismemberment of Women

Memory and history have dismembered, rather than remembered, women because female experience is too often discounted as insignificant. Their stories are not passed on and other narratives move into the foreground. Two forms of forgetting are involved in this process, it seems to me: a kind of “structural amnesia” that regards male endeavour as far more memorable than the female type, and an “annulment” that “flows from a surfeit of information” (Connerton 64). In other words, forgetting is a case both of disinterest and of ‘too many books (and websites!) and too little time.’

Such systemic and systematic forgetting raises the question, who remembers? Who is authorized to remember? Who gives value to memory? Remembrance always gives prominence to certain narratives, and the authors of public memory invite the community to identify with their version of the past. The stories told thus function as reinforcements of the narrators’ claims of authorship: we who have done, tell. Women’s stories are “muted” in comparison to dominant expressions of experience and therefore less readily than men’s absorbed into and circulated in “popular or collective memory” (Summerfield 28). The result might well be perceived as an unbalanced or distorted image, and public memory therefore as “a series of distorting mirrors” (Lourie, Stanton, and Vicinus 5).

Extending the Map of Memory

Including women’s stories means constructing a national narrative that’s more representative of Canadians. But in order to have women enter the scene of Confederation – and thereby to focus on the less public parts of the story – we’ll have to expand, figuratively, the map a bit (here, of Canada in the year of Confederation, 1867).


(I stretched it. Even so, notice the enormous areas that are not part of the new Dominion.)

Extending the map of memory means acknowledging that women, like the ‘great men’ in our national narratives, act as “prisms of history,” in Barbara Tuchman’s apt phrase. If we’d like to think of the story of Canada as a narrative of progress – even one with the moral lesson attached that hard work, determination, honor, and so on, pay off in building a fine nation – then surely that also means recognizing that that narrative is not “a single line leading from then to now” (McDermott 405). Instead, we should think of it as multiple threads of experience, linked, but also separate and different. And we should engage with the difference of the past, and make room for women’s role in it, to better understand who we are.

There is value in knowing women’s individual and separate stories and the counter-histories they weave. And really, a “greater recognition of the complexities and contradictions of our past” (Strong-Boag 8) strikes me as a rather useful way of “ensuring that we remember where we came from, that we remember who we are” (Birthing), as we have been asked to do in preparation for our big national anniversary. Re-membering many different stories, many different women, helps build a connection to the lives that went before us, lives that have given us life and that still hold us up. It gives us empathy for the past, and the present, and the understanding we need to face the future.



Sources and further reading

Connerton, Paul. “Seven Types of Forgetting.” Memory Studies 1.1 (2008): 59-71.

Erll, Astrid and Ann Rigney. “Literature and the Production of Cultural Memory: Introduction.” European Journal of English Studies 10.2 (August 2006): 111-115.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18.2 (Spring 1996): 7-23.

Hampson, Sarah. “First World War: How do we remember it meaningfully, a century later.” Globe and Mail August 1, 2014., accessed September 19, 2014.

Lourie, Margaret A., Domna C. Stanton, and Martha Vicinus. “Women and Memory: Introduction.” Michigan Quarterly Review 26.1 (1987): 1-8.

McDermott, Sinead. “Memory, Nostalgia, and Gender in A Thousand Acres.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.2 (Autumn 2002): 389-407.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Contested Space: The Politics of Canadian Memory.” Journal of the CHA (1994): 3-17.

Summerfield, Penny. Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1998.


Canada’s Story, at Its Beginning

“History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past,
though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


Canada’s story, at its beginning, comes into sharper, deeper, more colourful focus when the female perspective – the view of the mothers and daughters of Confederation – is added to it.

Canada’s first First Lady

For instance, while many Canadians may be familiar with their intellectually driven and hard-drinking first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who features so prominently at the centre of the Fathers of Confederation, they may not know much, if anything at all, about his wife. And yet, the PM with the over-abundant hairstyle was a newlywed when he signed the document of Confederation, and yes, he may well have been in love.

So why not explore the story of the woman who was the object of the PM’s affection, namely his wife (of just mere months, in July 1867), Jamaican-born Agnes, who was tall, dark, and exotic? Agnes was a remarkable figure in Canadian history and “remains by far the most complex, most gifted, and, ultimately, the most tragic of all Canadian prime-ministerial wives” (S. Gwyn, The Private Capital, 190). (The Macdonalds’ only daughter, Mary, was born severely disabled, a circumstance that understandably would have been a source of great unhappiness to Agnes.)

Agnes(Library and Archives Canada.)

And why not focus also on Hortense Cartier, the wife of George-Étienne Cartier (John A. Macdonald’s Quebec ally and lieutenant)? She came from a prominent Montreal family, but, unlike Agnes, had a dreary relationship with her husband. And focus also on Luce Cuvillier, Cartier’s mistress and Hortense’s cousin, who wore long pants and smoked cigars. These women enjoyed proximity to power, the ability to whisper in their husbands’ (or lover’s) ears, and prominent and influential social positions.

So, bring in the women

Why not include, in other words, the stories of the women – the mothers and daughters of Confederation? Why not tell the stories of the women for whom a confederated Canada – stretching from coast to coast to coast – became a reality during their lives? And the stories of the women who were born during the last few decades of the 19th century and who were as young and coltish and eager to count as the country in which they grew up?

Women like Harriet Brooks, born in Exeter (Ontario) in 1876, who graduated from McGill to work with famed scientist Ernest Rutherford. Brooks was Canada’s first female nuclear physicist.

And like Clara Brett Martin, born in Toronto circa 1874, who took advantage of the 1892 Ontario Act to Provide for the Admission of Women to the Study and Practice of Law. Although questions about women’s ability to reason logically were not eliminated by the Act (McLaren et al., eds., Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Vol. 6, 511), Martin, having enlisted the help of prominent women of the time (including Lady Aberdeen, the wife of then Governor General Lord Aberdeen), in 1897 became the first licensed female lawyer in the British empire.

Women also like Sara Jeannette Duncan, born in Brantford (Ontario) in 1861. Duncan became one of a vigorous troupe of female journalists of the 1880s and 1890s (and later a novelist) who wrote women’s pages and society pages and who were what today we would call enviably connected. Duncan, as the first woman to express her support for suffrage in print, “made herself the bright and insouciant voice of the New Woman in Canada” (Fiamengo, The Woman’s Page 60). These women were able to harness the energy generated by and invested into the new Dominion.

Women on Wheels

The New Woman, coincidentally, was new when Canada was also new, and she helped shape the fledgling nation. She enjoyed greater freedom, more mobility, and less restraint to domesticity than her mother’s and grandmother’s generations. This change was particularly prominent in the New Woman’s increased presence in the public sphere (exemplified by Brooks, Martin, and Duncan, among others), and few implements signaled and symbolized this liberation more than the bicycle.


If the bicycle craze reached its peak in the late 19th century, some decades earlier, before Confederation, the mere idea of women on wheels would have been entirely preposterous. In particular, as a British colony, Canada was profoundly influenced by its monarch, and – well, the image of Queen Victoria on a bicycle is not one that readily springs to mind. That said, Confederation gave Canada the beginnings of a separate identity, and young Canada’s new women, like their American sisters, “wanted all the advantages of their brothers, asked for education, suffrage, and careers […] and freewheeled along a path that led to the twentieth century” (Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers 1-2).

Conservative values

As distinct a presence, however, as the New Woman was just a few decades after Canada’s Confederation, and as much as she helped usher Canada into the 20th century and beyond, the nation continued also to be shaped by women like the aging Agnes Macdonald, who were opposed to many of the ideas – like women’s suffrage – that circulated at the time. Agnes (below with her daughter Mary in a wheelchair), after John A.’s death, understandably appeared much more like the widowed and withdrawn Queen Victoria than like a woman eager to experience a new country and world.

Agnes_widow(Library and Archives Canada.)

The women of Confederation, then, were not all bright young things. And just like Confederation itself, as an ideological force, was “conservative, idealist, imperialist and nationalist” (McLeod), so many women were happy to cling to the values upheld by that Victorian classic, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which instructed women to be, first and foremost, “perfectly conversant with all […] arts of making and keeping a comfortable home” (Fairfax ed., Mrs Beeton’s Household Book 7).


The emerging nation, consequently, was subject to, and ground for, women’s desires, hopes, dreams, abilities, and limitations of many, and often conflicting, kinds.

So who really were the women of Confederation? What motivated and energized, or disappointed and constrained them? What were the material things that made up their lives? What were the technological innovations that changed daily lives and routines? What were the ideas that inspired them, and the movements they resisted? The literature they read? The art they admired? The recipes they cooked and the housekeeping they practiced? Above all, how did their presence in 1867 and the decades thereafter help bring about the nation whose birthday we will celebrate soon?

These are the questions I will be exploring in my blog, with the help of regular (I hope) guest bloggers. My topic is deliberately broad, limited mainly by the timeframe – roughly from the mid 1860s to the turn of the century – to enable me to address as many facets as possible of the female dimension of the Confederation period and the decades that followed it.

Canada 150

Canada’s 150th birthday should indeed be an opportunity, as the parliamentary report stresses, to celebrate the events and people who “have shaped our history and contributed to our national identity.” That’s precisely what I am proposing to do in this blog, focusing on the female component in the shaping and contributing. Because the women were there. We just have to look at them. (In all fairness to the government’s plan, one milestone enroute to 2017 is the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2016.)

So, come visit. Often.



Sources and further reading

“Road to 2017.” Government of Canada., accessed August 14, 2014.

Fairfax, Kay, ed., Mrs Beeton’s Household Book: An entertaining glimpse of upstairs & downstairs life in the Victorian home. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

Fiamengo, Janice. The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1989.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

McLaren, John, Hamar Foster, and David H. Flaherty. Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Vol. 6. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

McLeod, Les. “Canadian Post-Romanticism: the Context of Late Nineteenth-Century Canadian Poetry.” Canadian Poetry, accessed August 14, 2014.



Birthing a Dominion

“[Confederation …] will make us historical.”
John A. Macdonald
“History is not the province of the ladies.”
John Adams


Did Canada’s Confederation women give birth to the new dominion in 1867?

Sir John A. didn’t have women in mind when he made his statement (above) about entering history. He was mainly referring to himself.

And yet, when one thinks about the homeland (patria, female), it is often as a female figure – the mother country - and the nation itself (la nation in French and gendered female also in many other languages) is delivered by someone (also female?) capable of giving birth. So presumably women have a role to play.

And yet,…

Canada is counting down now to a big anniversary, the country’s 150th birthday, fast approaching on July 1, 2017.


Whom and what will we remember as we commemorate and celebrate this anniversary? That’s what the government, too, has been asking. Following consultations and parliamentary heritage committee meetings, recommendations have been issued. The Department of Canadian Heritage is positioned to guide the official festivities. Its website features a timeline to the big event – pithily titled Canada 150. Other “key milestones” along the way – most notably the bicentennial of first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s birth next year – will undoubtedly set the stage. Naturally, remembrance of the “nation-maker” himself and the other “fathers of confederation” will feature prominently.

SirJohnAcartoon2“Confederation! The much-fathered youngster.” (Left to right: George Brown, Sir Francis Hincks, William McDougall, and Sir John A. Macdonald. Library and Archives Canada)

That said, the heritage committee’s public consultations have churned up a whole range of ideas, covering everything from Aboriginal participation in the celebrations, to the building and renovation of legacy venues (such as cultural buildings, museums), to digital projects, and to giving prominence to sports as an important aspect of Canada’s national identity. In her speech to launch the consultations, Heritage Minister Shelly Glover called upon all Canadians to, “work together to make these celebrations the best they can be.” She also said, “Let’s work together to ensure that we remember where we came from, that we remember who we are as Canadians, and that we provide a bright future for many, many Canadians to come.”

Bravo! Sounds like a good plan to me.

Something’s missing

There’s always a ‘but’ though. While reading the government’s program something struck me. An absence. Something was missing. Or rather, someone was missing. A whole lot of someones, actually. All the speeches and pages of reports don’t mention the word “women” or “woman” a single time. Where were the women?

Remembering “where we came from,” remembering “who we are”

I don’t mean to pick on Minister Glover (or on the parliamentary committee, for that matter), but doesn’t ensuring “where we came from” have something to do with the women who, ahem, have something to do with the existence of generations and generations of Canadians? And who, even if they are not mothers in the biological sense, still contribute to the weave (to use a feminine metaphor) of Canadian life?

So, where are the women?

Perhaps the rationale for – shall I use the ugly word? – excluding women is that women have now reached the equality that makes it unnecessary to include them explicitly.


I am certainly not the first, nor will I likely be the last person to observe that such equality still eludes us. In some respects, second-wave feminism might even be considered a failure, if for no other reason than that women now feel they have to do absolutely everything whereas before they were ‘just’ in the home. Whatever one thinks about our current status, though, gender equality is absent from history, which really is much more “his” story than “hers.” Perhaps history repeats itself – and that’s not generally thought to be a good thing – because of the prevalence of some stories and some ways of storytelling over others.

In any event, we should be clear that we choose to remember certain things while overlooking – or forgetting – others (a fascinating topic, and the subject of one of my next blog posts). Collective memory is actively produced through acts of remembrance, and, until recently, the public history-making that is made up of such acts of remembrance has not had much time (pun!) to linger on the ‘marginal’ outliers (as Aboriginals were and women still are) in the narratives of eras and events. (These days, by contrast, we seem to focus primarily on the outliers, which is also a distortion – but more about that, too, in a later blog.) So much for ‘objectivity’ and ‘reliability.’

Let me be clear: I do not believe, nor do I wish to pretend, that women in 1867 steered the course of Confederation (or the course of history, in general terms) in exactly the same, or even in similar ways, as men. Of course women weren’t the politicians who negotiated the treaties and signed the official documents. How could they have been? It’s a bit difficult to lead the nation if one is not meant or expected to be, nor by conventional standards thought to be suited for, the public sphere.

The “distaff dimension,” again

Even so, Confederation is a big topic in Canada, and others before me have noted that there were indeed women around then too, and they might just possibly have had something to do with the building of the nation, if not the signing of the treaties. Just imagine! Certainly, at the latest after Moira Dann’s article some years ago in The Globe and Mailnot an obscure academic journal or book that no one reads – entitled “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?”, I had hoped that what Dann calls the “distaff dimension” of Canada’s Confederation would also be of interest (along with the female side of the rest of history, in the most sweeping way), not just the male aspect.

My mistake, apparently.

Can we really fully reflect “on what we have achieved” as a country, “promote a strong sense of pride and belonging for all Canadians,” and “move forward” as a nation, as the parliamentary report announces, if women are not part – explicitly – first, of national remembrance related to Confederation, and, second, of a future-oriented national dialogue? How are we “getting the story right,” in the report’s lingo, if we fail to ensure that women are included?

More colour, more light

We should envision the story of young Canada as quite a bit more colourful and varied than the serious visages of the “fathers of Confederation” would have us believe it was.

FatherConfederation“The Fathers of Confederation.” (Library and Archives of Canada)

That room needs to be injected with Technicolor and light! Goethe’s last words purportedly were “more light, more light,” a statement that I have always found affecting because it so perfectly captures the essence of life. Similarly, the various shades of grey our early statesmen seem both to represent and be associated with – all those black-and-white photos – also cry out for more life. So let’s bring it on!

By this I don’t mean that women are (or were, at any time) nothing but delightful birds of paradise; all the somber colours alone worn in the Victorian period would make that unlikely. What I mean is that leaving out the female perspective – especially in an era when the domestic, with which women were so closely associated, took up so much time and effort – is a bit like looking at a grainy image that lacks depth, richness, and, well, colour. Instilling those things is easy, once we look for and at the (not so elusive) “distaff dimension.” And while individual figures and aspects of that dimension have been looked at before, that hasn’t been done, as far as I know, in this medium. Let’s face it – we rely on the Internet for fast and easily accessible information these days; few of us regularly head to the library. There is justification, therefore, even in some repetition.

So, let’s find a way to unbury individual and collective experiences of Confederation womanhood and integrate them into the national historical narrative. And let’s give Canada’s Women of Confederation an on-line presence – alongside all those “fathers.”

Stay tuned for more soon.



Sources and further reading

“Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.” Parliament of Canada., accessed August 14, 2014.

“Road to 2017.” Government of Canada., accessed August 14, 2014.

“Take a Walk in Sir John A’s Footsteps.”, accessed August 14, 2014.

“Transcription of a Speech By The Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages on the occasion of the Launch of Public Consultations on Celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Confederation in 2017.” Governemnt of Canada Canadian Heritage, accessed August 14, 2014.

Dann, Moira. “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?” The Globe and Mail. August 28, 2009.