A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old RTgime

by Elizabeth Rapley
376 pages,
ISBN: 0773522220

Alone in Silence: European Women in the Canadian North Before 1940

by Barbara E. Kelcey
227 pages,
ISBN: 0773522921

Who Cares? WomenĘs Work, Childcare, and Welfare State Redesign

by Jane Jenson and Mariette Sineau, with Franca Bimbi, Anne-Marie Daune-Richard, Vincent Della Sala, Rianne Mahon, BTrFngFre Marques-Pereira, Olivier Paye, George Ross
289 pages,
ISBN: 0802046932

Getting By in Hard Times: Gendered Labour at Home and on the Job

by Meg Luxton and June Corman
326 pages,
ISBN: 0802071473

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What's New and Different Lives of Women Then and Now
by Naomi Black

These four books are all concerned with women andłnot the samełall of them reflect the impact of feminism. Barbara Kelcey insists she is not a feminist, but her Alone in Silence is nevertheless part of the feminist attempt to retrieve the missing lives of the female half of the human race. No-one before Kelcey had examined the experience of the women who came from elsewhere to Canada's North West Territory in the years before the second world war. Elizabeth Rapley's A Social History of the Cloister describes and reinterprets the experience of the teaching nuns in France under the Old Regime. Here we see the feminist attempt to correct previous biased, dismissive accounts of women. Meg Luxton and June Corman's Getting by in Hard Times presents a socialist-feminist analysis of the lives of steel workers, an analysis in which women's unpaid work in the home is as important as paid work in the steel mills. Finally, in Who Cares? Jane Jenson and Mariette Sineau, along with seven collaborators, use case studies of childcare policy in Europe to study the changes in the welfare state. Before feminism's revival in the 1960s, it would have been inconceivable to document and evaluate societal change through study of a "women's issue" such as childcare. Indeed, before the revival of feminism, none of these books would have been written. That would have been a shame, for all are interesting or useful in their different ways.

Let's start with Kelcey's Alone in Silence. It is difficult to know how to identify the 500 or so women she describes. The author says that she has rejected terms such as "non-native" because she does not wish to focus on what her subjects were not. Instead, she refers to them as "white" and "European". These words distance them, and somewhat misleadingly so, since most seem to have come from North America. Apart from more than a hundred resolute Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) from Montreal, they seem to have been English-speaking and, in the large majority, either married or widowed. Not belonging in the Northłnot being native to itłwas finally the most important shared characteristic of the subjects of this book. Perhaps they are best summed up as outsiders. From the first Victorian women to the trader's wife who wore a "dazzling pair of beach pyjamas" to welcome a visiting Archbishop in 1931, they found life hard in a hostile physical environment and a society dominated by men.

Barbara Kelcey provides material about a surprisingly diverse group of these outsiders. Two chapters present the religiously-sponsored women, including almost a hundred who were wives of Anglican missionaries or themselves Anglican mission workers. Among the rest we find wives of traders and of government agents, RCMP officers, and settlers. There were also "entrepreneurial women" and women scientists as well as the women employees of the Hudson Bay Company who were waitresses and stewardesses on northern supply vessels and housekeepers at isolated posts. One chapter tells the story of Mary Philomena Lyman, the cook at Herschel Island in the winter of 1924-25. This "difficult" woman disrupted the tiny settlement and the HBC bureaucracy by demanding to use the Company's sitting room. Another chapter examines in detail four of the women travellers who left accounts of their experiences in the NWT.

Kelcey shows how non-native women clung to their own standards and ideals, often sustained by a religious commitment that women of today find hard to understand. They had, she specifies, not "courage" but "strength reinforced by faith." It is not an obvious distinction, but it seems to be a necessary part of Kelcey's insistence that her subjects merely did "what had to be done." Here perhaps she is echoing the attitudes of heroes like Rose Spendlove, who endured no less than nine breech births at Fort Norman in the late nineteenth century with no expert help whatsoever.

This author distrusts feminism and does not really understand it. She believes that feminism was absent from the North, because there were no suffrage or temperance movements there, and no calls for equal rights. However, as she notes, the outsiders expressed concern about the sexual exploitation and social subordination of aboriginal women. The non-native women were also responsive to local conditions. They advocated Christian marriage, but they tried to understand the advantages of sharing husbands. Distressed that "surplus" female babies were not allowed to survive among the Inuit, nuns and missionaries did their best to rescue the doomed little girls. Today's feminist analyst would say that these women's responses to women of another culture identify them as true feminists.

Kelcey sometimes unwittingly slips into feminist analysis herself. Both the HBC and the Anglican Church preferred their agents to be married, and not to aborigines. She comments, "a cynic might suggest that what the men really needed was a woman to look after them and to share their beds; or that if the Church of England did encourage its missionaries to have wives, it might have been because there was an unwritten rule against miscegenation." A feminist might say the same, recognizing that (no surprise) the dominant men and their institutions were both patriarchal and racist.

As to the women temporarily resident in the North, they are well worth knowing. They do not seem to have been all that silent; with this book, they become less so.

A Social History of the Cloister presents a very different group of women who have also lacked respectful attention until now: the teaching nuns of the Old Regime in France. The book has a misleadingly general title and a stodgy subtitle, but its author persuades us that her virtually invisible subjects reward attention. Self-effacing and respectful of authority, they were still not the "trembling doves" constructed by later sources. Elizabeth Rapley does not attack feminist analysts, nor does she identify herself as a feminist. Instead she shows a nice appreciation of her subjects' situations and tentatively suggests that there was a sort of "spiritual feminism" to be found among the teaching nuns.

The book's topic is not as narrow or specialized as it might seem. Cloistered though they were, the teaching nuns shared the everyday life of their communities. Their monasteries were basically urban small businesses; they had the same notaries, doctors, and legal advisers as those surrounding them, and the same sources of water and food. As teachers of young girls, the nuns dealt with problems of child rearing, and within the monasteries they nursed the sick and attended the dying much as other women did in the outside, secular world. The records of the teaching orders are therefore a vital source of information about lives of women, written by women.

There were almost 9,000 teaching nuns in monasteries spread across France in the two centuries that preceded the Revolution. The main information about them comes from the substantial documentation prepared by hundreds of monasteries for their own purposes and never before collated. Rapley also draws on the extensive, sophisticated public records of the Old Regime. She succeeds in producing a text that even a non-academic reader will find, not just interesting, but really enjoyable. Segregated in an appendix, there is a lucid analysis of the demographics of the cloister that could have made a whole book in itself.

Rapley begins with an account of the general historical situation of the French monasteries, male and female, from the early 17th century until their abolition in 1792. She then describes in more detail the creation and history of the three orders of teaching nuns (Compagnie de Sainte-Ursule, Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame, and CongrTgation de Notre Dame, all of which still exist). A great rush of religious enthusiasm, part of the Counter-Reformation, brought very large numbers of women into newly-founded cloistered monasteries to become the principal teachers of girl children in France. The Revolution ended the enterprise, but not its continuing influence.

The author demonstrates how the teaching nuns helped the Catholic Church survive in France through the girls whom they had taught and who remained faithful. She does not mention one of the most significant consequences of the resulting Republican suspicions of devout women: the denial of the vote to Frenchwomen until after the second world war. Ironically enough, the Catholic church in Quebec, a French society that did not experience a revolution, nevertheless distrusted women as much as the leaders of France's anti-clerical Third Republic. In Quebec, women's provincial vote was delayed until 1940.

The main part of the book gives, in fascinating detail, an account of daily life in the monasteries. Rapley shows how the Rule of each monastery sustained it, and how poverty and chastity worked to leach away individual sensuality. Under these conditions, most of the nuns seem to have been genuinely happy. The "great temptation" was not luxury but self-mortification; a small minority copied the saints, starving and punishing themselves in direct disregard of regulations. The Grey Nuns' joyful acceptance of their ordeals in the Canadian Arctic, as reported by Kelcey, gains meaning in this context.

Indeed, historians of the teaching nuns in Canada can usefully draw on Rapley's work to understand the way of life of women like their own subjects. The Ursulines of Quebec and their superior, Marie Guyart, actually appear in the book from time to time, negotiating gingerly with Bishop Laval about the constitution of their monastery, then trying to explain to the Abenakis why nuns cover their heads and hide themselves behind a grille.

The general reader will read A Social History of the Cloister simply for the pleasure of learning about the practical details of women's lives in pre-revolutionary France, in an environment that is both remote and surprisingly understandable.

Getting By in Hard Times, by contrast, is squarely Canadian and contemporary Canadian at that. Meg Luxton and June Corman's book opens with an early, mild anti-globalization protest, the Hamilton (Ontario) Day of Action in February 1996. The protesters were mostly steel workers, many of them now unemployed. They wanted to get back, in the words of one of them, to an "ordinary life" where men had secure industrial jobs that brought in enough money to support a wife at home.

Luxton and Corman were also present at the protest. They want something less ordinary: equality for women workers, in both factory and home. Marxism underlies their discussion, and they often use its language. In the words of their subtitle, the topic is "gendered work at home and on the job". That is, unpaid labour is analyzed along with paid, women along with men.

This case study centres on the employees, 1981 to 1996, of one massive, fully unionized steel plant in Hamilton owned by the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco). The basic source of statistical data is an important, though non-random 1984 survey of steel workers and their partners. But the most interesting parts of the book come from an unusual series of intensive follow-ups, beginning with lengthy interviews of forty-four couples selected from the larger survey. Direct quotations present, in rich detail, the dynamics of working-class life.

Stelco is basically a male workplace; the book's initial survey of 196 workers included only two women. Women had been hired during the war but none more were added after 1961 although some 30,000 had applied (about 10% of total applicants). In 1980 a feminist campaign got some 35 women hired. The company then claimed a hiring rate of 13% for women, but recession soon bounced out the low-seniority women. Luxton and Corman managed to interview twenty-six women who had been hired after the campaign, including four of the leaders.

Getting by in Hard Times shows that only brutal necessity makes work in the steel mill desirable. The pay is still good, and of course this is Hamilton's main industry. In addition, an exceptionally masculinized working environment has generated a powerful form of male bonding for generations of steel workers. But the work is shift work, and the main message of this book is that shift work is not good for anyone except the owners of the factory. Employment at Stelco has always meant life organized around a wage-earner who will be either absent or trying to sleep most of the times when the family is at its most active. Now, as the steel industry seeks profitability through lay-offs and job reorganization, unpredictability makes shift work worse and unemployment lurks.

According to the authors of this book, workers and partners alike now need, most of all, to understand how capitalism oppresses workers of both genders, in both workplaces. Working class families should then increase their activism, working for societal change through their union in collaboration with other equality-seeking groups. In addition, the male-dominated nuclear family has to be supplemented by alternate family forms.

Conditions do not seem to be propitious for such changes, as this book demonstrates. Few of the respondents analyzed their own situation in terms of structural discrimination and systemic change. The union at Stelco is now less radical than in the past, and has been relatively ineffectual under conditions of restructuring. In hard times like the last years of the twentieth century, people turn inward to the family, devoting less time and energy to unions or to political activism. In addition, the economic downturn has meant that women's access to paid labour is reducedłand for these authors, paid employment is the key to women's equality both at work and in the home.

Getting by in Hard Times nevertheless records some encouraging aspects of the lives of working-class families. An impressive number of this book's subjects participate in churches and in sports, activities that other studies suggest are very important for civil society. If there is suitable paid labour available for women, they now feel free to do it. Nor is steel work excluded. In the past, women job applicants had argued unsuccessfully that the work at the mills was no more physically demanding than to be a waitress and move supplies around or to "carry a forty-pound kid around the shopping malls." Today the industry is sufficiently mechanized that, in one man's words, steel making is "pretty well a push-button business now." Most important, many of the younger couples say they believe in gender equality. Furthermore, some of them practice it. "Ordinary life" will never be the same again.

Who Cares?, the final book to be reviewed here, is also a study of the consequences of globalization and economic restructuring. Its subject is not workers or their partners but the welfare state policies that have shaped both the domestic and the industrial workplace since the end of the second world war. Jane Jenson and Mariette Sineau edited this collection of case studies of the progress of policy-making in Belgium, France, Italy, Sweden, and the European Community from 1945 to the mid-1990s. Unlike many analysts, the contributors to this volume do not believe that the welfare state is dead. Instead, they demonstrate how it has changed. Women's equality is the criterion of their judgments, and they do not think that cause is prospering. Their argument is made through analyses of childcare policy, where private life meets public life as growing numbers of "working" mothers struggle to reconcile their different sets of responsibilities.

The book examines both "citizenship regimes" and "discourse." That is, the contributors look at institutional arrangements, policies, and understandings and also at the concepts and rhetoric that support such systems. In the postwar welfare states that emerged in industrialized nations, the central idea was that everyone should be treated as "a full and equal member of society." Since "everyone" now, for the first time, included women, public policy was shaped accordingly. By the 1970s, partly because of the efforts of Europe's revived feminism, governments accepted the necessity to back up women's formal workplace equality with the "substantial" right to publicly-provided assistance with childcare. National differences trumped shared economic and political pressures, of course. Thus, France favours drop-off daycare (halte-garderie), Italy relies most on the family, and Sweden pioneers in parental leave that men actually make use of.

The contributors to this book feel, like Corman and Luxton, that women's participation in the paid labour force is central to their equality. State-supported childcare in turn is the key to equality at work. They therefore put to one side any linkages between women's equality and policies relating to their education, their reproductive autonomy, or their freedom from sexual exploitation and domestic violence. That still leaves an almost overwhelming amount of material to deal with. In a long, dense book, three synthesizing chapters by the editors are clear and helpful

In their introductory chapter, Jenson and Sineau trace the acceptance by the welfare state of the "goal of enabling mothers to reconcile their employment and their family responsibilities." Note the wording: this book demonstrates how rarely such problems are seen as relating to fathers. Different nations installed a wide range of mixes of government sponsorship of parental and non-parental (maternal and non-maternal?) childcare, ranging from paid and unpaid maternity leave through subsidies to stay-home mothers to state-regulated or state-funded institutions including pre-primary schools. By the last years of the century, governments were struggling to deal with unemployment and budget deficits. Often solutions included encouraging mothers to move out of the full-time labour force; with one stroke competition for scarce jobs and costs for state-funded childcare could be reduced.

Governments' somewhat decreased support of childcare now seems to lean towards less costly services and greater decentralization as well as increased flexibility and varietyłpatterns that we can see in the welfare state more generally. The contributors to the book are not happy with such changes, which policy-makers justify as providing more "choice". Who Cares? has a different interpretation, suggesting that "equality" has dropped from the agenda. Less privileged women are more likely to have suffered because direct state support of social services has declined. It is true that working-class women have tended to find publicly-provided childcare less useful and to be more critical of it. Unfortunately, current policies continue to respond less to women's preferences than to fiscal and political pressures.

Still, all of the states discussed do have childcare policies. Canadian policy-makers might find it useful to read these accounts of a policy area that just about everywhere in the world finds more important than our own leaders do. So too might the activists who have been struggling for so long to redeem the pledge of a national childcare policy.

Naomi Black is Professor Emerita in Political Science and Women's Studies at York University and Adjunct Professor in Women's Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.


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