The October 2021 OWHN Conference included the papers “Networking: How the Ontario Women’s History Network Works for Me” by Linda M. Ambrose, “Public History and OWHN” by Dianne Dodd, “A Renewed Feminist Pedagogy” by Sharon Anne Cook , and “A Personal Reflection on OWHN: Encouraging and Supporting Students” by Alyson King.
Networking: How the Ontario Women’s History Network Works for Me
Linda M. Ambrose
Second-wave feminists always said: The personal is political. So, I’ve made my reflections about OWHN quite personal, in order to place my story into the context of feminism and the political context in which OWHN has operated.
Thirty years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Waterloo and attended many of OWHN’s first events. In the early 1990s, job prospects were grim for members of the Ontario public service in general and for aspiring academics in particular. I had defended my PhD thesis in 1992, and I had resigned myself to the fact that there were no prospects of full-time employment in academia for me. These were the so-called “Rae Days” (back when Bob
Rae was an NDP’er) and as premier, his Ontario government had implemented its “social contract” with public service employees during some very tough economic times. With the goal to preserve as many existing jobs as possible, Finance Minister Floyd Laughren – himself a proud Sudburian — introduced a controversial scheme that included hiring freezes, wage cuts and unpaid furlough days for public servants including those at Ontario universities. I was realistic enough to recognize it was very unlikely that I would ever enjoy the kind of career that my feminist mentors had begun 10 or 15 years before me when they broke glass ceilings to join university history departments as tenured professors. It seemed I was in the wrong line of work at the wrong time.
I decided to regroup and ask myself “what else can I do with a history degree?” Writing. Historians write a lot. So, I applied for and accepted a grant-funded contract to write a book for the Federated Women’s Institutes (WI) of Ontario as they approached their centennial celebrations in 1997.
It was hardly a strategy for long-term job security, but it would keep my hand in the field of women’s history, and it would pay my day care costs, while I took up the task of writing about a topic close to my heart. In fact, I had previously pitched a bottom-up study of the WI as a thesis topic. But when I had proposed it to my supervisor, Wendy Mitchinson, she wisely counselled me that a grassroot, oral history project would be too time consuming and too costly as a struggling graduate student. Better to go for a topic that already had a nicely catalogued set of archival records, something more contained and do-able. She was right, of course. And, she had grant funding to support me with my trips to the National Archives in Ottawa, she offered.
So, I wrote that thesis on the Canadian Youth Commission and just as I was completing preparations for my thesis defense, lo and behold, this writing contract came up where the WI would pay me to undertake the very thing I had wanted to do four years earlier! Wendy wrote a strong letter of reference for me and encouraged me to submit some of my doctoral coursework papers on rural women and feminism to the selection committee for the book contract. I landed that contract despite some stiff competition, and at the same time, was awarded a coveted SSHRC postdoctoral scholarship which gave me a home in the history department at the University of Guelph working with a good friend of OWHN, Terry Crowley. “Get yourself out there at conferences,” Terry urged me. At the same time, Gail Cuthbert Brandt was taking up her role as President of Renison University College, and she hired me to teach a course in the Social Development Studies program, the History of Social Welfare. My first sessional contract!
My dear friend and colleague, Sara (Burke) MacDonald, and I have often remarked that our great good fortune in the academic world is largely due to a small and fierce network of feminist academic mentors who opened doors for us, paved a way forward, and wrote endless letters of recommendation as we hunted for jobs, grants, tenure and promotions. For me, many of those tenacious supporters have been right here in the network of OWHN. Only one year into my sweet gig as a contract writer, postdoc, and sessional instructor, the unexpected golden ticket was offered to me: a tenure-track job in women’s history. It was unexpected because Rae Days were still in effect, and there were only three tenure-track jobs in Canadian history that year, all of them in small, regional universities where women’s history was hardly on the radar yet. Two were in the Maritimes, and the third was in Sudbury at Laurentian University (LU). The job came open when a much-loved Laurentian colleague, Angus Gilbert died quite suddenly after a brief illness. I never met Angus, but his friends tell me he was the epitome of a well-rounded academic: a beloved teacher, an effective administrator, a collaborator and co-author, and a tireless citizen of the Laurentian community. Grieving colleagues pitched a convincing case that they didn’t see how the History Department could go on without him – they simply HAD to hire a replacement. Their emotional appeal rendered a yes from the Laurentian decision makers – but it was a conditional one. Thanks to some relentless feminist influencers in the Laurentian community and recent developments in equity, the boys in history at Sudbury had to hire a woman. Equity hiring was the name of the game. And they were also told that she should create new courses in social history with attention to women’s history, family history, and gender history, and to acquire library resources to help their curriculum catch up with the times. Some of the colleagues protested, some of them held their noses and accepted the prospect, and some, like my friend and defender, Matt Bray, cheered the development.
My OWHN network had stepped up for me again. Wendy, Gail, Terry and others including John English and Gerry Stortz wrote glowing letters of recommendation on my behalf. After the short list and interviews, I was offered the job and started at Laurentian in 1994, and have happily built a career there for almost thirty years.
New professors soon learn, as they join the academic circus, that their real job is to juggle. That’s a metaphor suggested by writing coach, Jo Van Every, who says the act includes figuring out how to keep all the balls in the air: teaching, scholarship, and service. I wasn’t sure how to do all that, but I knew for sure I needed to stay connected with other women who were already doing the same thing, many of them OWHN members.
The move to Sudbury meant that I was introduced to a new friend and mentor, Margaret Kechnie. Our friendship and overlapping research interests have been so important to me: she has been my confidante, advisor, counsellor, and comrade as we have carved out a small and steep little path toward a feminist presence in History at Laurentian. Just four years later, I was delighted to welcome Sara Burke MacDonald to the department. Along with Janice Liedl, our Europeanist colleague, we began dreaming about a day several decades down the road, when History at Laurentian would be run by “three old ladies with big purses.” And here we are, though my purse is usually a backpack.
Some of what helped me survive and improve as a juggler were the relationships forged and reinforced by OWHN. For my own sanity and professional development, I made concerted efforts to stay connected to my colleagues in southern Ontario. OWHN colleagues were often amazed that once again, Margaret and made intrepid road trips to attend OWHN conferences. Truth be told, this network of scholar friends was a lifeline to us in our little regional outpost of
Our scholar sisters in larger urban centres perceived that Sudbury was a long, long way up north. And indeed, sometimes it felt that way. But we joked that apparently it wasn’t as far for us to drive south as it seemed to be for southerners to drive north. So, we kept coming to OWHN conferences in Toronto and also those held around the province in Waterloo, Kingston, Ingersoll, Ottawa, and London. We were always game for a road trip!
And sometimes, we even enticed OWHN members to visit us in Sudbury. Twice we hosted successful annual OWHN conferences, the first in conjunction with Women of Steel, forging a partnership with some of our labour studies colleagues including Jennifer Keck and Mercedes Steedman, as we invited women in mining to be our guests. We brought older Italian women who had worked at INCO during WWII alongside graduate student Sandra Battaglini,
and her oral history work on their experiences. Jennifer and Merc brought some of those fearless women from the 1970s, the first women to work underground in hardrock mining when feminists’ push for women in non-traditional work finally materialized, along with the relentless harassment and violence those women endured on their jobs every day and night underground. Our second conference, held quite recently, was on the theme of Indigenous Women’s History, featuring as keynote our friend and well-known kwe, Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek (now VP of EDI at York University) alongside several Indigenous colleagues. The other way we got some of you to come “way up North”, was by hosting an annual Women’s History Week event in October and inviting you as keynote speakers. Our students were thrilled to actually meet the famous names they were reading: Constance Backhouse, Gail Brandt, Wendy Mitchinson, Karen Dubinsky, Karen Balcomb, Merna Forster, and Jane Nicolls, to name a few. We paraded out our scholar friends: a veritable who’s who of Women’s History in Canada on our little campus. Brilliant! I should apologize in hindsight, for how hard we made you work on those occasions: giving guest lectures, visiting our classrooms, doing CBC interviews, lunching with students and dining with colleagues. It must have felt like you yourselves were back on the job market with those long days and endless hours of being “on.” In 2019, we had a big cake to mark the occasion: 25 Years of Women’s History at Laurentian. Thanks to the network of women scholars we know and loved through OWHN, we looked very impressive indeed, for what we managed to pull off, usually on a shoestring budget. I invariably I came home from OWHN annual meetings with lists of films, resources, and clever teaching strategies thanks to award-winning teaching colleagues like Rose Fine-Meyers and our friends at OISE. Knowing that many of our current history undergraduate students would go on to become teachers of history themselves, it was vital for them to be reminded that we were academics and practitioners, teachers, and sometimes public historians. Women’s history continues to find a place in the classrooms of our former students across Northern Ontario and well beyond because we could model some great feminist pedagogy strategies. We could do this from Sudbury because OWHN colleagues are tireless and generous activists devoted to promoting women’s history.
As I reflect back on my career and my association with OWHN I see how the personal mentoring and friendships grew richer and deeper as the years passed. I’ll never forget, during my short and ill-fated run as an Acting Dean in 2008-09, sitting at the national Deans’ meeting table in Winnipeg, when a dear OWHN friend and confidante leaned over and asked me very bluntly: “What the hell are you doing here?” Imagine how offended I would have been if a male colleague had dared to ask me that! I was taken aback yes, but … I explained that like her, I was a dean, at least temporarily…. Later, she took me aside urging me to think long and hard about what I was doing and where I was hoping to go. “So then, are you on an administrative track now?” she wondered. “No, not really,” I said. “I love teaching and I feel like my research and publications are just peaking. But they needed somebody to do this dean job, and I love
Laurentian, so I said yes.” She sagely asked me to observe that everyone else at that table full of deans was at least ten years older than me, and she commented, “If you don’t intend to make a future of this, you might want to get out before you get in too deep.” Thank you, thank you! That was brilliant advice. It wasn’t at an OWHN meeting, but there was Jane, my dear OWHN friend watching out for one of her peeps. And for me, just grabbing those extra few minutes of chat time with her proved invaluable. Last time OWHN met face to face in London, Ontario, Sharon Anne Cook offered some wise counsel about the last few years leading up to retirement and where it might be best to put my energies. With three years to go, I think about your advice all the time now, Sharon. Over the years, I hope I’ve offered some advice of my own to graduate students and emerging scholars whom I first met at OWHN. Paying it forward – it’s how networks work.
So, dear OWHN, I thank you. Thank you all, for the lessons in juggling. For the endless reference letters. For driving (or flying or bussing) all the way up to Sudbury. And thanks for generously sharing the creative teaching strategies — and, Pat Staton, those amazing posters. And for all that solid career advice – priceless! But more than anything, thanks for your friendship. Thanks for the network that is the Ontario Women’s History Network, which works because it is the site of feminist scholars in solidarity, taking action.
Public History and OWHN
by Dianne Dodd
Happy anniversary to OWHN. During my many years as a public historian at Parks Canada, I always found OWHN Conferences particularly welcoming. In part, that’s because OWHN conferences include educators and public historians as well as researchers and also feature tours of museum, exhibits or historic sites. These were much more than just a chance to get up and stretch your legs but were woven into the conference’s program. They gave public historians an opportunity to exchange ideas, and learn how other institutions approach women in history. They could also showcase their work. In 2005, for example, the conference featured one of the first major exhibits of women’s history at a national museum curated by Tina Bates at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (History). This project brought women’s history to a national audience and more importantly, showed skeptical administrators that women were eager to hear and see their own history.
One of the biggest roadblocks I encountered in my career was the fact that public history has been so much slower to accept women’s stories or embrace gender as an analytic tool, than has academic history, where gender is now an accepted concept of analysis. So why is this so? Part of the problem is that many of the people involved in interpreting history are simply not interested in including women. Still, I always found that at any enclave within Parks Canada, there were always a few women working valiantly, and often alone, to try to include women in a more meaningful way. So, the things that OWHN does to support them is really helpful.
But, it’s also because of public history mandates, conceptions of popular history that drive interpretation, and those annoying political bosses. Public history is driven by criteria. In the federal commemorative program, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, which is appointed by the federal government, must follow criteria that ultimately reflects their priorities. The focus is on historical significance at a ‘national’ level which in practice, often reinforces a centrist form of nationalism. Once a new designation is screened in, a research report is prepared, which summarizes the literature, compares the proposed designation to other comparable people or events in similar fields, and points to existing recognition. For example, in a report on Charlotte Whitton in 2010 assessed her contribution to the child welfare movement of the interwar period, and her role as Ottawa’s controversial mayor in the 1950s and 1960s. She measured up and/or exceeded the standards set by these comparative examples. She also had ample recognition with five honorary degrees, an OBE, an Order of Canada, an Ontario Heritage plaque and recognition from the city of Ottawa. So, Whitton was recommended for designation. Less ‘elite’ women would find it harder to gain board approval.
Popular conceptions of history can also cause problems. In my experience, many women don’t relate to the guns and bombs version of history — and often don’t see themselves as historical actors. Especially for non-elite women you need to show them. As well, the growing emphasis on increasing the number of visitors to sites, has led to a focus on ‘visitor experience,’ which uses survey methods that ask visitors about what they saw, or would like to see. This tends to reinforce existing ideas rather than teach new ones. When you occasionally get an opportunity to convince women that they, too, made history, it can be a really special moment, such as the nursing exhibit at the Museum of Civilization/History when nurses/women saw themselves reflected in a national institution. Those moments are all too rare.
I don’t know what lies in the future for OWHN. The current climate for public history at least in the way that Parks and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board have done it – seems unsettling to say the least. Which brings me to my final public history challenge – political bosses. Recently, feminists and progressives have celebrated the victories of the “me too” movement, “black lives matter’ and indigenous rights – these are long overdue. But the climate has decidedly turned against much of the past commemoration done through Parks Canada. To return to Charlotte Whitton. She met the criteria, but her plaque was never unveiled because the Canadian Jewish Congress objected, citing her opposition to Jewish orphan refugees coming to Canada at the time of the Second World War. That was 2010. In 2012, a plaque for public health physician Helen MacMurchy (who was designated in 1997) was unveiled by Conservative MP Joy Smith. Later, a group publicly criticized the government for commemorating a eugenicist (conflated to mean racist), and the government retreated. Neither Parks nor the Board was ever given an opportunity to address these concerns or to change the plaque to acknowledge her eugenics beliefs, then all too common. Previously the program had dealt with controversial moments in history, but in these cases, there was simply no discussion. The plaques were put in storage.
Commemoration will look different in the future and it’s not clear where women will fit in. So, I really hope that OWHN will continue to support the next generation of public historians. They have their work cut out for them.
A Renewed Feminist Pedagogy
by Sharon Anne Cook
OWHN has made a significant contribution to feminist pedagogy over its thirty-year span. I began attending conferences and sitting on its executive in OWHN’s second year. At that time, and for many years afterwards, I taught in a Department of History and to B. Ed candidates in a Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. My students often became History teachers. Part of my educational role was to demonstrate a broad range of pedagogical approaches to teaching. OWHN consistently offered demonstrations of feminist pedagogy at its conferences which I scooped up and took back to my classroom. I also encouraged my students to attend the conferences.
In invoking the “political is personal” and of course, “the personal is political” as a pedagogical approach for students, there were so many wonderful examples at OWHN Conferences. Over the 30 years, OWHN generally offered 2 conferences a year, and this produced a lot of fodder for my classes and of course, for me to enjoy too! For example, in 1992, OWHN sponsored a conference that was held on Parliament Hill, “Women in the Political Process,” which I organized with Ruby Heap, of the Canadian Committee on Women’s History. Happily, we fell heir to a pot of money that the then minister in charge of the Status of Women seemed to want to unload. One memorable panel included female legislators speaking about their experiences in getting elected and working through the political process. This isn’t an unusual pedagogy of course, but the legislators approached their respective speeches – by showing that everything was intensely personal. The audience could really identify with their struggles. The panel then debated each other, challenging, supporting one another and asking questions. Women from different parties found a lot of common ground and they laughed a lot. I remember what an impression it made on me to hear that kaleidoscope of experiences with an audience that could identify closely with them.
History came alive in several conferences through “Living History” where women dressed the part and presented historical accounts as if they lived in that period. I recall a wonderful conference at RMC where women in the military and in nursing corps presented papers. The first time I met OWHN stalwart Rose Fine Meyers, she was presenting a section of her high-school history course using visuals of women’s costumes as resources.
At a conference at the Canadian War Museum, a group of middle-school girls presented a play of women’s roles in the First World War that had been written by their talented teacher, Barbara Bronfman, who also taught at Ottawa U.
The pedagogy that I witnessed and tried to promote was interactive rather than based on lectures; it privileged networking amongst the learners and presenters in a levelling process where everyone ended up being both the audience members and the knowledge sources. Small group discussions were often built into OWHN sessions, such as one conference where participants worked with archival documents to assemble a narrative, and then reworked that narrative based on other documents. Through all of this, OWHN has presented conferences that were multi- disciplinary, including professionals from museums, the academy, archives and education. Always, however, the role and focus remained on women, their experiences, achievements, challenges, and barriers to be overcome.
OWHN also provided resources to Ontario teachers, through Pat Staton’s Green Dragon Press, and its fine documentary resources and posters for classroom use.
For me, OWHN operated like a lab in reminding me of, and sometimes introducing me to, feminist pedagogy. I soaked it up and carried it back to my classrooms to diffuse these ideas into Ontario high school classrooms. Thank you to OWHN and the many talented pedagogues who have presented at its meetings over the years!
A Personal Reflection on OWHN: Encouraging and Supporting Students
I first joined OWHN as a graduate student studying at OISE with Alison Prentice as my MA supervisor in the early 1990s. At the time, I didn’t realize how new OWHN was or even that women’s history was still relatively new as a field of research. It was simply exciting to be invited to join a group of ground-breaking and well-respected scholars of women’s history while still an MA student. My experience of being part of OWHN was one of mentorship and support. When I think back to the first few OWHN conferences, after getting over the shock of being surrounded by these fabulous historians, there was a feeling of welcome and warmth and humour.
I felt a strong sense of mentorship from the women who founded OWHN, as I and other students were encouraged to be active participants in the planning of events and the operation of the network. For instance, while I was the Secretary of OWHN, we began the Newsletter, a directory of members, and created the first website (ca. 1997). As a keen student with lots of energy, I spent quite a lot of time working on these things. Things like the newsletters and conference programs were printed on paper and had to be mailed. Conference registrations and memberships had to be received and collated. My niche was to help with this sort of background work. But, as a student, this was important learning. Being able to see the logistics of how passionate people come together to create a network like OWHN set a standard that I could take with me as I progressed in my career.
Being a student member provided an opportunity to learn about conferences and workshops in a less competitive and in a smaller venue than some of the larger associations. Getting to know other historians in a more intimate setting was helpful when I began going to larger conferences, such as the Canadian Historical Association, at what was then called “the Learneds” (or the “Stupids” as Jane Errington taught me to say!). Getting to know women historians in a smaller venue meant that I at least recognized people and felt less intimidated by them.
It also helped in learning to present at conferences. One of the first workshops that I organized was for OWHN in 1997. The topic reflected the 1990s: using the Internet to research women’s history for our conference on Women’s History: New Technologies, New Resources! It sounds funny now that we are so immersed in tech, but at the time, many members had little experience using the Web beyond email.
OWHN mentorship informed how I work with students and colleagues. Without the support of the founding women of OWHN, my experience of academia would have been much less positive. My gratitude goes out to Pat Staton, Alison Prentice, Gail Cuthbert-Brandt, Rose Fine Meyer, Jane Errington, Sharon Cook, Paula Bourne, Tina Bates, and the many other members of OWHN for their positivity and support over the last 25 years as a member of OWHN.