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The Feminine Gaze

Interview with Anne Innis Dagg

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Were there many Canadian women authors of non-fiction?

I had expected there to be a few dozen written in English, but instead was thrilled to find 473. Among them they wrote over 674 books. Most of them lived in Canada, but a number of women who lived in Great Britain or the United States visited and wrote about Canada, often to advertise it as a good place to live or to visit.

What type of woman wrote the books?

Women of the upper and middle class wrote most of the books. In the early days many women in Canada were illiterate or did not speak English; even if they could read and write, most worked so hard they did not have time to research and write a book. Initially, authors tended to be the wives, sisters or daughters of professional men; later, famous women wrote their autobiographies, academic women wrote on current issues, and many pioneers set down their memories for their grandchildren.

What did they write about?

A great variety of topics. In the early days, before they were allowed into universities, they tended to stick to religious books or autobiography. By the 1890s, they were also heavily involved in travel books, works of history, and biographies. Soon after that, many were publishing books based on their PhD theses, and others were writing about science, social issues and homemaking topics.

Why have these women and their books been overlooked?

Non-fiction books by men as well as women written many years ago tend to have been forgotten. Similar material has usually been addressed in more recent books which have more credibility. Even so, there has been a gender bias; works of non-fiction imply a high level of expertise in the author, and in our male-dominated culture, women and their books were apparently not accorded the same respect as men and their books.

Why do you think these women and their books should be remembered?

We tend to learn in history that men were involved in the public sphere, whereas women took part only in the private sphere. Yet my survey of women authors indicates that this was often not so. For myself, I find many of the books by women of great interest. Some give advice to young people that now seems both fascinating and ludicrous; others discuss religious issues that I had not realized were important to our forebearers. My book includes an index, so that anyone writing on a certain topic or about a certain time period in Canadian history can check what women had to say about the topic of the period. It provides a feminine perspective on Canada’s past that has previously been unavailable.