The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: general

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.