The October 2021 OWHN Conference included the papers “Holding Museums Accountable for Women’s History” by Beth Atcheson, “OWHN and Weaving the Tapestry of Women’s History: the view from an OISE Field Centre” by Elizabeth M. Smyth, and “Founding, Foundering, Fostering: Some Personal Perspectives on OWHN’s Organizational History” by Gail Cuthbert Brandt.
Holding Museums Accountable for Women’s History
by Beth Atcheson
Museums are one of the primary places for Canadians to encounter the history of women in Canada. The Canadian Museums Association told the House of Commons Finance Committee in advance of the 2021 federal budget that an estimated 30 million annual visitors experienced 2,700 museums across Canada — compare that to the only 7 million who took in an NHL hockey game in the league’s 2018-2019 season.
Museums are key gatekeepers to public access to the history of women in Canada. Administrators and curators decide who is in and who is out, and how all stories are told. Those who study women and those concerned with women’s issues have pushed for decades to include women, in all of our diversity, in telling the full story of Canada. Inclusion and diversity have been a tough go, especially in bigger institutions. We are far from meeting our objectives, especially with respect to removing the emphasis on the exceptional, the heroic, the dominant political narrative.
As a mirror to how Canada was founded, has grown and is changing, museums are contested spaces, political spaces. They need to be rights-sensitive spaces. Acknowledging and addressing rights and rights conflicts are express functions of our human rights laws and processes. Important social institutions have to find better ways of addressing rights-based demands, including those which conflict, improving significantly on how this was done in the past.
The inclusion of women is not as well-established as it might appear, and is vulnerable. It is not a time to stand down or stand by. We have been responsible advocates for change in the past, and we should continue to be bring our knowledge and experience to change in these important spaces.
OWHN and Weaving the Tapestry of Women’s History: the view from an OISE Field Centre
by Elizabeth Smyth
It is so lovely to see all of you – and to hear about the wonderful work you continue to do to promote ongoing advocacy for women’s and gender history in elementary and secondary schools, post-secondary institutions, museums, and community groups. OWHN was, is and will continue to be a powerful network to support important work. My remarks will be brief – but heart-felt – as I draw threads from my career that contribute to the tapestry that is OWHN.
The first thread is from a high school history classroom. Like several of you on this call, I began my educational career as a high school teacher of history. While at St Catharines Collegiate, I joined the Ontario History and Social Science Teachers Association (OHASSTA) eventually sitting on its provincial executive with Rosemary Evans – whom we met last night in the video presentation. Rosemary was a history teacher and later consultant for the Peel District School Board and now serves as Principal of the University of Toronto Schools. As she described last night, we history teachers in OHASSTA talked to other history teachers but seldom to those university-based scholars who conducted the research and generated the publications that would eventually find their way into resources we used in our classroom. Sharon Ann Cook, another one of our OWHN founders, was also a high school history teacher who created some of those classroom resources we used, including volumes in the Canadiana Scrapbook series. She later served OWHN in many roles and served the academy through her work as Distinguished Professor and administrator at the University of Ottawa. In 2001, along with Lorna Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, she edited Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century – a collection to which several scholars in this audience contributed.
The second thread is from my work in the museum/living history sector. As a high school teacher, I was a volunteer participant on museum boards such as St Catharines Museum where I worked in developing community linkage programs and the Historic Parks Branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources in Midland and Penetanguishene, especially with the wonderful winter live-in programs at Ste Marie Among the Hurons.
The third thread is from my association with academic societies. Like Rosemary Evans, I had some experience with academic history associations such as the Canadian Society of Church History and the Canadian Historical Association. These were associated with my work as a researcher rather than as a teacher.
My experience in schools, in museums and with academic historical associations taught me three lessons – that these were three discreet, fiercely independent and very important sectors; that there was little overlap among them; and that women’s experiences were not highlighted.
And then I met Alison Prentice. In 1984, I enrolled in one of Alison’s courses as a student in the doctoral program of the Department of History and Philosophy at OISE. She was a wonderful teacher and mentor, and became my supervisor. In March of 1989 as I was completing my dissertation, while teaching history and English at the University of Toronto Schools, I was appointed to the Field Service Division of OISE – and to its Centre in Thunder Bay. The Northwestern Centre was one of a number of Field Centres scattered throughout the province to ensure that OISE was Ontario wide and that the three-fold mandate of OISE – to teach, do research and engage in field development – was available to all parts of Ontario. I became a colleague of Alison and she invited me to join a project that became OWHN.
In her 2012 Canadian Historical Review article that was a part of the series “A Life in History/ La vie d’historien” Alison Prentice wrote : “ Interwoven with [my career as a university professor] are my attempts to write and promote the history of what deeply interested me: the history of education and the history of women and gender, particularly in educational settings.” In my work in the Northwestern Field Centre, I had the opportunity to work with OWHN and to contribute some threads to the tapestry that Alison was weaving.
I arrived in Thunder Bay as women’s academic activism was on the rise. Thunder Bay was home to the Northern Woman’s Bookstore, established in 1984 by Margaret Alberta Phillips and Anna McColl as feminist bookstore and community space. Women academics on the Lakehead University campus were beginning to organize. The Women’s Studies Program was forming and Margaret Phillips and I were the two community representatives on the advisory committee. Three Lakehead University women academics were prominent in the program’s creation: the late historian, Professor Helen Smith, an OISE Grad; Professor Emeritus Pam Wakewich, a medical sociologist and the late Professor Peggy Tripp Knowles, Professor of Forestry – all of whom would have links to OWHN.
OWHN was featured when Gail Cuthbert Brandt came to Thunder Bay to deliver one of the program’s first public lectures. An OWHN conference later included the work of Helen Smith and Pam Wakewich who had a SSHRC grant to explore on women’s wartime work at the Canada Car and Foundry (CanCar) plant in Fort William (Thunder Bay) – headed of course by the Queen of the Hawker Hurricanes aircraft – the amazing engineer Elsie MacGill. Peggy Tripp Knowles acknowledged the support of the network in her work to have Lakehead University award an honorary degree to the illustrious University of Toronto Professor Ursula Franklin. Peggy contributed to another initiative in which several OWHN members were core participants – Alison Prentice’s SSHRC-funded Networking Grant Education for the Professions Research Group – that produced two volumes – Challenging Professions and Learning to Practice.
During my ten years in Thunder Bay, OWHN was a valuable network, providing me with ready access to a terrific group of people that helped me in my teaching, research and field development. Members of OWHN generated the resources that I used in my courses – and graciously served as doctoral examiners for students whose work combined history, history education and gender studies.
OWHN has played and, as the video last night demonstrated, continues to play an important role as we broaden our efforts to become more inclusive in whose history we represent in the classrooms, in the academy and in our public commemorative spaces. Let’s all commit to keeping this valuable network active.
Founding, Foundering, Fostering: Some Personal Perspectives on OWHN’s Organizational History
by Gail Cuthbert-Brandt
I well remember the sense of excitement as we met in an OISE classroom in 1989 and agreed to meet again the following year to approve the creation of a formal organization. We envisioned OWHN as a network to bring together specialists working in any area of women’s history, not just those working on Ontario women or Canadian women. Nor did we want to confine our membership to professional historians. From the start, OWHN wanted to draw teachers, archivists, librarians and museologists into its ranks.
OWHN was also created as a bilingual organization. At the time of the founding, I was teaching history in French and English at Glendon College, York’s bilingual campus. I thought it was vital for OWHN to welcome both Anglophone and Francophone members to support and draw on the expertise of women located in the province’s Francophone areas.
No doubt we were overly ambitious since our practice was to meet twice a year — once in Toronto for a conference and annual general meeting, and then in another region of the province. We typically started on Friday evening and met all day Saturday with a program featuring a keynote speaker and panel discussions that addressed researching, writing, and teaching of history at all levels of the educational system.
No matter how uplifting these meetings were, it was difficult to sustain the momentum due to logistical and other challenges. Those involved in the organization’s founding were extremely busy advancing their careers by the mid-1990s. Many were juggling childcare responsibilities as well, and it became increasingly difficult for them to commit to attending the OWHN conferences.
There were also significant social and intellectual changes occurring at the very time that OWHN was founded. The momentum of the second women’s movement was ebbing by 1990, as the fault lines of race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity disrupted its superficial unity. On the academic front, Joan Wallach Scott’s influential article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”(1986), Denise Riley’s Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History (1988) and the growing influence of post-structural theory on the discipline of history suggested that “women” was a problematic, even outmoded concept. As gender gained in popularity as a fundamental analytic tool, we had to defend the idea that we were a group dedicated to the promotion of “women’s history”. As well, despite OWHN’s initial success in attracting some non-Canadian specialists, there was not enough non-Canadian focus in our programming to keep them involved.
As our numbers dwindled, OWHN was increasingly held together by a small core of members based mainly at OISE. In the autumn of 2007, a meeting was held in Toronto to discuss whether we should disband. I was in favour of continuing and offered to host a conference in Waterloo in the spring of 2008. Fortunately, that event was successful, and we were able to recruit a good number of new members. Since 2008 we have had excellent annual conferences, but, once again, attendance at them and memberships are dwindling.
Suggestions for improving OWHN include utilizing our affiliation with the Ontario History Society more effectively, expanding board and membership to include greater diversity, bringing back the newsletter, and asking existing members to each recruit one or two new members.