As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I’m thinking not only about my own mother, but also the other women and foremothers who are keepers of family histories.
In 1983, when I was 13, my grandfather’s aunt, Agnes May Henry, sent a note to my mother telling her I may want to read her memoir. At the time, the woman we called Aunt May was 81. Although she was a special matriarch in my family, it wasn’t until I was grown and a historian, teacher and researcher interested in how personal stories help students learn that I took any interest in the memoir.
As a historian who has studied the changing constructions of gender and sexuality in the 19th and 20th centuries, including in interwar Canada, most remarkable to me among May’s memories are those of her learning and work during the Second World War.
In her account, she is struck (it seems for the first time) at the limits placed on women in certain roles as that had not been her experience within her own family context. May remained unmarried throughout her life, had no children and she worked in various jobs, thereby avoiding or bypassing the traditional role for many women of her time.
Are memories ‘true?’
May’s memoir explores the history of our family through descriptions of roles she assumed throughout her life. As a child, she and her siblings helped the family economy by carrying out traditional tasks like scrubbing floors with homemade “soft soap” made from rendered fat, duties associated with dairying, making maple syrup and collecting firewood to heat the house in winter. Many of these things were learned from her mother.
What is interesting in the memoir is May’s assertion that all work chores on the farm “changed with the age of the child, but the gender was never a consideration.” Are May’s memories of gender neutrality around work in her family her own constructions?
In other words, are these memories “true?” As a historian, I am deeply aware of the challenges associated with memoirs. As historian Elaine Tyler May and memoirist Patricia Hampl write in their book Tell Me True: Memoir, History and Writing a Life, memory is selective, biased and presents choices to later readers about how to use and regard stories left by historical actors. The memoirist, they say, “instinctively presents the personal story — the memoir, in effect — as a radical document, to be read as personal and public.”
May’s account that gender was not a consideration may say something both about how she read her own individual experience or a hope or vision for a bigger social context. Could she have been aware, as historian Sally Alexander writes, that family stories provide us with “the raw material of history and social change” that serves to influence identity development and shape how we move through the world?
Sexism at work
In the early 1940s, May worked at de Havilland, an aircraft manufacturer in Toronto. She developed an allergy to what she called the “dope” — a lacquer used to make planes airtight and weatherproof — that was applied during construction.
As a result, she was asked to take a tool-and-die making course in British Columbia by her superiors so that she could train other women to perform these tasks. May was excited for the new learning opportunity and was not daunted by the prospect of making her way alone across the country. But after travelling by bus to Vancouver, May was dismayed when she was turned away by the school.
She notes in the memoir:
“I went to B.C. for my ‘change’ but found B.C. still didn’t seem to know there was a war on and refused to let a girl into their T. & D. course.”
This was despite the fact that she travelled with a letter from her Toronto supervisors, she writes. Frustrated by her rejection as a result of her gender, she decided she did not want to teach tool-and-die and returned to Toronto to find other work.
Remembering the stories left to us
May’s story points to the importance of telling our stories to future generations as one way of inviting next generations to ask questions about the interaction of individual lives with larger histories.
The work of cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson emphasizes the ways owning our own life stories and sharing them with others can help us to make mindful choices as we move through the world.
Mother’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the stories that the women in our families leave us because they may help us to understand many of the memories, identities or histories we draw upon that shape our future.