“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.