Social Departures: Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922)


By Tiffany Johnstone


Sara Jeannette Duncan, of Scottish Presbyterian ancestry, is one of Canada’s most iconic turn of the 20th century literary figures. Her journalism and novels stand as literary companions to suffrage debates. Raised in Brantford Ontario and trained as a teacher, Duncan went on to write for Canadian and American publications such as the Globe (Toronto) and the Washington Post (D.C.). In 1887, she became the parliamentary correspondent for the Montreal Star. She wrote a column in the Globe addressed to female readers and shared progressive politics on issues relating to nationalism and suffrage. Duncan married a British civil servant working in India where she then lived and worked as a novelist and journalist for her adult life in the “Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta and Simla” (Dean 19). In her lifetime she published over 20 novels and she remains one of the most prolific and influential figures of Canadian literature.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

In 1888, Duncan went on a trip around the world with Canadian journalist Lilly Lewis (1866 or 1867-1929). This led to her first semi-autobiographical novel, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia Went Around the World By Ourselves (1890). One of the most memorable illustrations from this text portrays Duncan and a character based on Lewis perching on a Canadian Pacific Railway cowcatcher as they set off through western Canada. That adventurous spirit also characterized many of the women described in subsequent novels, including A Daughter of Today (1894) and The Imperialist (1904). Duncan is known for her complex and antagonistic heroines and her ironic, cutting wit. It is important to note that Duncan’s subjects remained, for the most part, middle-class settler women and imperial visitors in other lands. The future opportunities associated with the proverbial new woman in Duncan’s texts were mainly limited to a white, middle- class, Anglo female readership in Canada, the United States, and Britain. Women of other nationalities are conspicuously absent from her stories while First Nations women appeared as little more than figures of the past, not the future.

However, while Duncan’s feminist perspective was limited in its treatment of race and class, she firmly avoided a universalizing idea of womanhood in her writing. She often emphasized conflicting layers of identity relating to gender, nation, and empire. For this reason, her body of work is not easy to sum up. For one thing, while she always identified with Canada, she published abroad and represented a more? transnational perspective on gender, politics, culture, and literature. Secondly, while Duncan showed a strong interest in pushing the boundaries of women’s lives in her writing, she neither explicitly nor consistently aligned herself with suffragist struggles. Such ambivalence was common in the work of many women writers of the day. Their professional lives often depended on tempering their personal or political views and tactfully confronting the expectations of publishers and readers.

Contemporary feminists, scholars, or readers with an interest in the history of women in politics in Canada must learn to read between the lines in texts by Canada’s turn of the 20th century female literary figures. Duncan’s expression of impish delight as she rides the rails in A Social Departure seems to express what she could not explicitly say in her writing and even perhaps in her life. Female readers were invited to embark on literal and metaphorical social departures from conventional gender roles and more broadly to question their roles as citizens. On the edge of the train, hurtling beyond the conventionally known at the dawn of a new century, Duncan embodied the complexity of the new woman persona of her day—one that was all the more radical for its very avoidance of a fixed national or political affiliation. Virginia Woolf’s famous observation in 1938 that “as a woman, I have no country” (109) emerged between the lines of earlier women authors in the years leading up to suffrage. Duncan’s invocation of what we now understand as a transnational perspective reveals the recurring struggle of many feminist writers to broaden women’s horizons across national, geographical, and political boundaries. She reminds us that it is such institutional boundaries that keep women off the map by limiting their imaginations and opportunities.

Further Reading & Resources

Dean, Misao. A Different Point of View: Sara Jeannette Duncan. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
– – -. Introduction. The Imperialist. 1904. By Sara Jeannette Duncan. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005. 9-31.
Devereux, Cecily. “Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeannette Duncan Navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by Herself.” Diversity and Change in Early Canadian Women’s Writing. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Chambers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2008. 36-54.
Duncan, Sara Jeannette. A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World By Ourselves. London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1890.
– – -. The Imperialist. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1996.
– – -. Selected Journalism. Ed. Thomas E. Tausky. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978.
Fiamengo, Janice. “‘Baptized with Tears and Sighs’: Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Rhetoric of Feminism.” ReCalling Early Canada: Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Blair, Daniel Coleman, Kate Higginson, Larraine York, Carole Gerson (foreword). Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta, 2005. 257-80.
Milne, Heather. “Narrating Nation, Travel, and Gender: Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Social Departure and/in the Literary Marketplace.” Popular Nineteenth-Century American Women. 432-450.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.

Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson: Frontier Adventure Literature and the Dawn of Suffrage

E.M. Ashe, “I could not keep away from his hoofs", Grace Gallatin, A Woman Tenderfoot, 309.

E.M. Ashe, “I could not keep away from his hoofs”, Grace Gallatin, A Woman Tenderfoot, 309.

By Tiffany Johnstone


At the turn of the 20th century the North American nature writing movement produced many famous male writers such as Jack London and Hamlin Garland. Wilderness adventure writing of the time is notable for its masculinist and imperialist themes relating to manifest destiny. One of these writers, Canadian Ernest Thompson Seton (who initially went by the name Ernest Seton Thompson), is best known for his influential roles in pioneering the animal story genre and co-founding the boy-scout movement. While writers such as Thompson Seton were social activists arguing for environmental conservation and Aboriginal rights, they also played into more mainstream interpretations of outdoors adventure as a metaphor for increased militarization, continental expansion, and off-shore imperialism (Atwood). Women and the topic of women’s rights often get left out of the discussion surrounding turn of the 20th century nature literature. This omission undermines our collective memory of North American literary history and of feminist agitation on both sides of the border.

Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson (1872-1959) was married to Ernest Seton Thompson from 1896 to 1935 and her own impressive career as an adventure writer and suffragist demonstrates telling connections between nature literature and women’s rights. Born in California, Seton-Thompson wrote for local newspapers and later attended Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Part of a wealthy and socially connected family, she helped to establish her husband in the New York literary scene and worked closely with him on several of his books. Her own travel literature was autobiographical, humourous, and bravely polemical. Seton-Thompson wrote about her travels to countries including Japan, China, and Egypt. However, she started out her literary career by adopting the persona of a frontier adventure heroine. In her first book, A Woman Tenderfoot (1900), an account of her camping trip in the Canadian and American Rockies, she encouraged female readers to strive for increased physical (and social) mobility by taking trips to western regions of North America. Much of the nature writing of her male peers and predecessors depicted the natural world as a passive feminine space that must be conquered by the male traveller. Even 19th century female travel writers often adopted a sentimentalized view of nature as a feminine domain. This essentialism inflects even the more socially engaged literature of some early 20th century ecofeminist travel writers. One of the interesting aspects of Seton-Thompson’s frontier texts is her almost complete ambivalence to the natural world. Instead, adopting the tone and style of popular east coast magazine writing, she described the frontier in comic sketches as a performative space in the North American consciousness—one where men learned how to act out the ideas of individualism of manifest destiny. Typical of stunt-girl journalists of the time (Lutes), Seton-Thompson put herself in the middle of a series of physical trials, literally acting out masculinist wilderness roles including those of a miner, cowboy, and hunter. Avoiding almost all landscape description, Seton-Thompson focussed on guiding her female readers on how to perform the familiar masculine wilderness roles of the day that were associated in mainstream media with discourses of cultural agency, individualism, and the freedom and progress of westward expansion. She even designed a costume that allowed women to ride astride while appearing to ride side saddle in order to keep up appearances of femininity while actually achieving the physical freedom of their male peers. She thus showed her readers the ropes on how to access the male dominated tropes of nature writing, while also poking fun at the way that such tropes are gendered in the first place.

While Seton-Thompson avoided identifying too closely with the natural landscape of the west, she did tap into cultural perceptions of the frontier as a site of female emancipation. Women got the vote earlier in western parts of the United States (Mead) and iconic writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about the frontier as a mythic site of female liberation. Seton-Thompson’s commitment to women’s rights went beyond the page. In 1910, with her husband, she developed an organization, later known as the Camp Fire Girls, as a female counterpart to the boy scouts. From 1910 to 1920, she served as vice president and as president of the Connecticut Woman’s Suffrage Association. From 1926 to 1928 and 1930 to 1932, she presided as president over the National League of Pen Women. She was also committed to supporting other women writers. Serving as chair of letters for the National Council of Women from 1933-1938, she developed a collection of women’s literature that was then donated to Northwestern University.

As a prominent adventure writer, woman of the arts, and suffragist, Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson represents a vocal and influential feminist perspective on turn of the 20th century wilderness adventure literature. Seton-Thompson’s appropriation of such literature from a feminist perspective showed that culturally prioritized masculine wilderness activities were accessible to women and open to ongoing interpretation. Her work offers an important historic backdrop when 21st observers seek to understand the leadership of many women, from Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962) to Elizabeth May, Canada’s first Green Party M.P., in the modern environmental movement.

Further Reading & Resources

Margaret Atwood. “The Grey Owl Syndrome.” In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 35-61.

Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson Papers, 1878-1989; A-47. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Grace Thompson Seton Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Lutes, Jean Marie. Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction 1880-1930. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Mead, Rebecca. How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York and London: New York University Press, 2004.

Mount, Nick. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Seton-Thompson Gallatin, Grace. A Woman Tenderfoot. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co, 1900.

Skidmore, Colleen, ed. This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2006.