In July 2014, even as Canadians saw reminders of the centennial of World War One’s opening shots, they discovered they had been surreptitiously stripped of other parts of their history. Media across Canada suddenly highlighted the 2010 removal of Thérèse Casgrain, Quebec suffragist icon, from Canadian currency and from the title of a national prize for volunteers. Equally tardily, many commentators lamented the loss from the $50 bill of ‘Alberta’s Famous Five.’ In 1929 Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby won women recognition as ‘persons’. Such activists and the issues they championed are clearly not in favour in Ottawa.
In fact such decommemoration and deliberate neglect are nothing new. Canadians have been losing history for some time. Ottawa might have invited us to celebrate a bowdlerized version of the War of 1812 but it has sidestepped the women suffrage centennials and the anniversaries of the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians are not to be encouraged to remember historic struggles for equality. Casgrain’s feminist successors, like justice-seeking charities such as Oxfam and PEN, are pariahs in official circles. In their place we see the unedifying spectacle of a cabal of anti-feminist MPs and Senators, including the always missing-in-action Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, curbing Canada’s official commitment to equal rights. Recurring photo ops direct Canadians elsewhere. A Conservative leader notorious for his attacks on social justice and the self-servingly retitled ‘Prime Minister’s Volunteer Awards’ distract attention from Ottawa’s disengagement from public well-being. No wonder the World Economic Forum downgraded Canada from 14th (2006) to 21st (2012) in gender equality.
To camouflage reactionary agendas, federal Conservatives have set about to dumb down the electorate. This begins with history and the assault is wide-ranging. The savaging of museums, commemorative programs, Library and Archives Canada, and Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, just like Stephen Harper’s highly public denigration of sociology in 2013, tells us how little evidence and education are valued. The March 2014 veto by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights of my invited submission on International Women Day (IWD), described at ActiveHistory.ca, http://activehistory.ca/2014/03/international-womens-day-iwd-and-human-rights-2014/, demonstrated the same preference for popular ignorance. Ottawa’s ruling party favours a fictional past where power goes unquestioned, elites rule in the common good, and women freely subsidize male authority. Unsettling messages of resistance and struggle, just those embodied by the Quebec activist and her counterparts, who are likely to be remembered on IWD across the country, are to be forgotten.
Such distortion of history is far from accidental. It camouflages a hard-edged politics that denies women, and disadvantaged groups in general, recognition and redress. Fortunately, alternatives exist. In websites like http://activehistory.ca and http://womensuffrage.org and UBC Press’s forthcoming series, “Canada Women, Suffrage, and Human Rights,” modern scholarship offers ample reminders of both injustice and resistance. In this, women, whether alive or dead, always matter. As Thérèse Casgrain demonstrated, the furtherance of democracy depends on their actions and inspiration. Commemoration on coinage or with prizes helps ensure that Canadians remember that there are always alternatives to the status quo.
Comics and Canadian Feminism: Willow Dawson’s Hyena in Petticoats and the Story of Suffragist Nellie McClung
Historically, women have not fared well in comic books. As a traditionally male dominated medium, derogatory depictions of women figure prominently in both past and present comics. Even portrayals of iconic female characters from the 1940s and 1950s, such as the US-generated Wonder Woman and, in Canada, Nelvana of the Northern Lights (Bell, 2006), often conform to what scholars Erving Goffman and Sut Jhally have called “Codes of Gender” (Goffman, 1959 and 1978; Jhally, 1987 and 2009). In short, this graphic form commonly represents women as deferential, submissive, and highly sexualized. Even the empowering attributes of superheroines, of which there are admittedly some, often take place within an overarching patriarchal framework and thus adhere to stereotypically constricting gender roles.
Since the 1970s, however, there has been a strong feminist contingent in comics that has pushed for alternative representations. In the US, artists such as Susan Rudahland comics such as Wimmen’s Comix (1972-1985) and It Ain’t Me Babe (1970) have critiqued sexism in comics and society generally. In Canada, the Corrective Collective published a feminist history of Canada entitled She Called it Canada Because That’s What it Was Called (1971), and the Graphic History Collective recently released a comic book about a Canadian socialist-feminist union (2014). Contributing to this feminist comics tradition is Toronto artist Willow Dawson’s recent graphic novel, or comic book, Hyena in Petticoats (2011), which documents the life and times of the important but controversial Canadian author, activist, and suffragist, Nellie McClung (1873-1951). Dawson dedicates her much-needed comic book to “all the girls!” and the project certainly deserves a wider feminist readership today.
Throughout the comic book, Dawson illustrates how McClung’s personal life shaped her political path. Drawing inspiration from McClung’s published autobiographies, Hyena in Petticoats begins by casting Nellie Letitia Mooney as an outspoken, free-spirited, and rebellious child (McClung, 2003). Growing up in a rural setting, first in Ontario and then in Manitoba, Nellie quickly became frustrated with the gendered expectations for young girls on the farm to simply cater to men’s demands and respect their ultimate authority. Instead, Nellie wanted to play sports, to “run with the boys” (p. 8), and to go to school to learn to read, write, and form her own opinions. It was the espousing of the latter—throughout her career as a prominent author and politician—that would establish McClung as perhaps the most recognized advocate for women’s rights in Canadian history.
After tracing the contours of Nellie’s adolescence and young adulthood, including her awareness of the Métis resistance in 1885, her graduation from school, her employment as a teacher, and her marriage to a minister’s son, Robert Wesley McClung, and starting a family, Dawson shows how Nellie began to reflect more on women’s social status. Nellie sought to change the world: “Why do women have to suffer so much? They can’t vote, they’re not protected by the law, and yet they have to do all the work bearing and raising children. Women have endured too much and said nothing. Well, I’m not going to be meek and mild and resigned” (p. 33). On that basis, Dawson describes how Nellie joined a number of different organizations that fought injustice in the home, at work, and in society generally. In all of Nellie’s endeavours, including a career as a politician, Dawson illustrates how Nellie brought a fighting spirit and a charismatic creativity that won her supporters and advanced the cause of women.
The most fascinating sections of Dawson’s comic book treatment of McClung are depictions of the fight for suffrage, or the right to vote and stand for electoral office. Although McClung cut her teeth on the temperance movement, like many turn of the century activists, she soon focused centrally on enfranchisement as a key to wider social reforms. For example, after being patronized by Conservative Manitoba Premier, Rodmond Roblin—“What in the world do women want the vote for? I don’t want a hyena in petticoats talking politics at me. I want a nice gentle creature to bring me my slippers” (p. 48)—Dawson shows how McClung and members of the Political Equality League put on a mock Parliament to raise awareness about women suffrage. Clearly demonstrating Nellie’s brilliant use of humour as a political tool, the performance was a smashing success and solidified her reputation as “Windy Nellie,” the most celebrated Canadian feminist of her time.
Hyena in Petticoats is an excellent introduction to Nellie McClung and the history of first wave feminism in Canada generally. Dawson sees in McClung a feminist role model for young girls and choses to emphasize her indomitable spirit and indefatigable organizing for women’s rights and social change in hopes of inspiring youth today to fight for a better world. However, Dawson’s attempt to present McClung solely in a positive light comes at a cost. The author chooses to avoid McClung’s more controversial beliefs. Specifically, Dawson ignores McClung’s support for the eugenics movement as well as her contentious views on race and immigration (Valverde, 1992). Instead of confronting these opinions, to emphasize McClung’s complexity as a feminist figure as many historians have advocated (see Strong-Boag, 1997 & Fiamengo, 2002), Dawson shunts acknowledgment of McClung’s prejudice into a short “Afterward.”
Thus, teachers in elementary, secondary, or post-secondary classrooms using Hyena in Petticoats will need to offer a more balanced and nuanced approach by drawing on established scholarship and current debates about McClung and first wave feminism in Canada. To point out flaws and discriminatory politics in our historical role models is not an exercise in discrediting them. Rather, it allows subsequent observers to appreciate human complexity and to consider the ways that errors of the past can be avoided in the present.
Overall, Hyena in Petticoats is a welcome addition to the tradition of feminist comics. For too long, girls interested in comics have had few worthy role models. Dawson’s celebratory comic book biography of Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung offers an alternative representation of women that, with some additional reading, can inspire readers unsatisfied with the status quo to organize and fight to transform it.
Sean Carleton, Trent University
Sean Carleton is an activist, educator, and writer living in Peterborough, Ontario, Anishinaabe territory. He is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies and a member of the Graphic History Collective.
Image credit: Penguin Canada
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June 17th, 2014 at the Gathering Room at Leigh Square
I had a great opportunity to attend the condensed Women’s Campaign School “Essentials Workshop” in Port Coquitlam, an event put on by the Canadian Women Voters Congress, in partnership with the Young Women Civic Leaders and Mayor Greg Moore of the City of Port Coquitlam. I was interested to find out that Mayor Moore had personally contacted the Congress about holding an educational event in hopes of attracting more women to run in the upcoming civic election. As of now there are no women on the Port Coquitlam City Council, and there has never been an elected woman mayor.
Women came from all over the Lower Mainland, but most were from the Tri-cities area. In a show of hands and some brief introductions, we found out that over a dozen of the 40 or 50 attendees were planning to run for office in the November municipal election. Most were gearing up to run for City Council and the School Board, with one participant seeking nomination within the Conservative Party caucus. It was great to see women gathered from all different political backgrounds with a common goal to gain more knowledge to help them in their political endeavors. They had come to the right place.
The speakers of the night included School Trustee Judy Shirra, Surrey City Councillor Barinder Rasode, Vancouver City Councillor Heather Deal, Port Moody/Coquitlam MLA Linda Reimer, and Campaign Strategist Raj Sihota. Judy opened the night with an inspiring account of how she decided to enter municipal politics as a school trustee because of her long affiliation with PACs. She stressed the value of like-minded individuals coming together produce change, noting that women need to celebrate one another’s achievements.
Linda Reimer also a mother and former PAC member, told her interesting story of running for both school trustee and City Councillor and losing, only to win a City Council position on her third campaign. Approached later by the Liberal Party of BC, she ran for MLA for Port Moody/Coquitlam and won. Now sitting in the legislature in Victoria, she’s an example of a woman whose persistence led to success.
Heather Deal gave some interesting tips for running a campaign. She emphasized encouraging volunteers to vote, the importance of standing on street corners and starting a dialogue with the community, while at the same time keeping a sense of humor. She also advised that when in office the importance of research and coming with solutions when identifying problems.
Barinder Rasode, an eloquent speaker, had several meaningful points. She told the attendees to first of all throw away any doubts they had about running. She said it’s important to not get discouraged by the logistics of a campaign, because if you are following your passion people will recognize that and help you. In addition, she noted the value of changing the negative perception of a career in politics. Instead of using the titles “politician” or “ambitious woman,” she encouraged using phrases like “elected representative” and “giving back to the community.”
A lively Q&A period followed with Reimer, Deal, and Rasode stressing the importance of face-to-face interaction with the community, and touching on issues concerning work/life balance. All three women agreed that a career in public service is ultimately a truly rewarding experience.
The second part of the night was a Campaign Essentials workshop prepared by Raj Sihota, a Campaign Strategist and board member of the Canadian Women Voters Congress. The workshop detailed the logistics of a campaign, including areas such as managing volunteers, finances and fundraising, voter contact, organizing a campaign plan, and communications. The condensed session was full of crucial information and participants had lots of questions and feedback during the session.
It was truly amazing to see such a large turnout for this event. And though a lot of the participants made the long commute from Vancouver North Vancouver at least half were from the Tri-cities area. Hopefully with this upcoming municipal election we will see some women faces on the Port-Coquitlam City Council, and more women in the rest of Greater Vancouver.
Photo credit: Anastasia Gaisenok and Sally Lee
1. Erin Rennie is a Master’s of Planning Candidate 2014
2. CWVC–The Canadian Women Voters Congress is a non-partisan registered charity working to inspire, educate, and empower women to participate in democracy. To find out more about our upcoming events please visit www.womenvoters.ca