“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. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/first-world-war-how-do-we-remember-it-meaningfully-a-century-later/article19888613/, 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.