PART FOUR: MONUMENTAL WOMEN
In a press release about The Famous Five put out by the National Council of Women of Canada, there is a statement about how little women’s history is taught in our schools and that The Famous Five were only famous to law students until MacLean’s Magazine placed these women and the Person’s Case among the twenty-five events that shaped our country in the past century. “Until 1999, the bronze plaque in the lobby of the Senate in Ottawa was the only major public recognition of The Famous Five,” they wrote. In a sense, it seems that the name itself is oxymoronic.
Around day seven of my research I came across Kathryn Carter’s name. She is a very much alive academic specializing in Canadian women’s history and she speculated as to why Canadian women heros remain relatively invisible in our culture, especially in comparison to our American sisters. “When I think about memorials in Canada,” she said, “I think of Susanna Moodie’s grave. Although it has received a certain kind of cult status, it does not have an official historical marker.”
She thinks it’s possible that Margaret Laurence drew people toward knowledge of Moodie’s life simply because she was inspired by the stone angel that marks her grave, and that Moodie became, in effect, a touchstone for many Canadian women writers. Meanwhile, said Carter, the gravesite was falling apart until Belleville, Ont. decided “after much prodding from outside sources,” to restore it. “[But] I don’t think Belleville understood the significance of it.”
Where is Margaret Laurence buried? What historic sites mark her memory? This question lies begging. I once wrote an obituary about Laurence’s first editor—indeed, he was also the person who sat down and typed her first novel while she took care of her young children. He also introduced her to Jack McClelland. Laurence lives on in popular memory as one of the birth-mothers to Can Lit, but what will become of her name three or four generations from now?
Carter often finds that the artifacts she’s looking for—the ones that tell the stories of a woman’s life—have become lost or else crumbled beyond repair. “One woman lived in Alberta, and her letters were published in 1928 in the States. When I tried to track her down [her letters] were in the attic of a barn that was falling apart.” She has also gathered fragments of stories that were found in the walls of houses undergoing renovations; she once found diaries shoved inside a sugar sack, tucked into the rafters of a Saskatchewan house.
It took me a while to find substantial information about memorials of Canadian women, unless it was L.M. Montgomery. At first, I found a Parks Canada website listing national historic sites of Canada. Under “search” I typed in “women” and came up with this startling message: “zero locations found.” I didn’t give up the fight though and after wading through several more pages on The Famous Five, I came across another Parks Canada listing: “Sites, Persons, and Events in Women’s History,” providing a myriad of information from the Acadia Ladies Academy in Wolfville, to Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, with a smattering of convents along the way. Nothing overtly feminist here, although the fact that there were such places that primarily served women is not insignificant. Included in this list was the birthplace of Emily Carr, in Victoria, and Manitoba’s Walker Theatre—the site of labour and women’s movement meetings.
STAY TUNED FOR PART FIVE OF “MONUMENTAL WOMEN”