Echoes of Those Now Silent: Canadian Women's Associations as Learning Sites

Echoes of Those Now Silent: Canadian Women's Associations as Learning Sites

Michael R. Welton (Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/IJAVET.2019040105
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This article examines the “great transformation” of Canadian women's self-understanding and identity in the period from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. It argues that women's individual and collective energy was canalized through the creation of voluntary associations and social movements. It also explores a select few of the persons and innovative pedagogical projects and experiments in communicative action. Civil society expands significantly to accommodate women's needs, demands and dreams.
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1. Introduction

Visiting Parliament Hill in Ottawa is always a memorable experience. The languid gaze across the Ottawa River, the long view out towards the Gatineau Hills—surrounded by solid male Canadian Prime Ministers like Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker. But unexpectedly, as one wanders around the back of the building, one’s stroll is abruptly stopped as one arrives at the “Ottawa Tea Party.” There one is confronted by five formidable bronzed larger-than-life statues. Five Albertan women--Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney—invite us to join them for tea, cookies, talk and action. Nellie, holding an unfurled banner inscribed with the words “Women are persons”, stands nearby, beckoning us to pay attention. Listening closely and imaginatively, we can hear their urgent voices imploring us to pay attention. Who are these women? Their imprecatory voices, now silent, still echo in our own time. But we must be receptive, open to actually hear the voices of those now departed. Others are no longer heard.

One of the tasks of the historian is to make certain that the voices of those now silent, of those often forgotten not only in their own time, but also in ours, are keep alive. The historian struggles against collective, societal forgetting. Historians who write with emancipatory intention search in the margins of our past for those who suffered deeply in their own time and are forgotten as history gets narrated from the victor’s standpoint. Until recently, Canadian political, social, educational and intellectual history has been narrated from a male horizon. This horizon screens out most of everyday life, and fixates upon the evolution of the nation state. It is history written by men about other prominent men. This has also been largely true for the writing of adult learning and educational history. In this essay, then, I want to recover an array of women’s voices, associations, movements and pedagogical innovations and practices. Our attention will be limited to the period of the late 19th to roughly the mid-20th centuries and will focus mainly on Caucasian women.

My argument will be bold: first, in this tumultuous period in Canadian history, women experience a “great transformation” in self-understanding and identity; second, this transformation involves the release of immense learning energy as women move out from the “home” and invade public spheres previously forbidden to them; third, women’s individual and collective energy is canalized through the creation of the social form of the voluntary association and movement; and fourth, the galvanizing vision of “women are persons” manifests in arresting pedagogical projects and experiments in communicative action. Thus, we can insist that the “struggle for recognition” and the “struggle for justice” catalyze women in both rural and urban Canada as we witness a significant expansion of civil society. Our narrative will proceed by depicting the context of these times, a snapshot analysis of two women’s associations (Women’s Institutes, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and co-operative movements) and portraits in miniature of three women (Nellie McClung, Beatrice Brigden and Violent McNaughton). Woven throughout this narrative, then, are the voices of many Canadian women who accomplished great things and have seldom been acknowledged.

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