Three Women, ca. 1901
Detail of B-01172
It has been difficult to know what women's lives have been like in the
past because of the scarcity of records kept by women. Since the records we
commonly use to examine history are records created by men in the course of
their daily work, it is usually through records created by brothers, sons,
fathers and husbands, that we know what women's lives may have been like.
Unfortunately the work women were engaged in until the latter part of
the twentieth century, did not usually involve the creation or maintenance of
textual documents, so often what we know of women's lives is what has been
interpreted by men.
Not only has learning about women in the past been difficult because of the rarity of sources, historians until the 1970s were not particularly interested in the study of women. Before this time when historians wrote about women it was usually only the exceptional and extraordinary women who merited examination. During the last thirty years, academics have begun to write about more ordinary women and their lives. The exploration of how women's culture has changed over time has revolutionized not only how we see women's roles in the past but also how we assess the past generally.
Margaret Conrad describes some of the issues in writing women's history
"...we are looking at fundamental questions of sources and methodology. For example, when approaching history from a woman's vision, the question becomes not 'Why are women marginalized in the early trade movement?' but 'What are the essential features of working class women's lives?'. Not 'Why have women been relegated to the private sphere in industrial societies?' but 'How has women's sphere been transformed by the emergence of industrial society?'. The answer to questions such as these will allow us to transcend the less ambitious queries and lay the foundation for a genuine human history."
'"Sundays always make me think of Home": Time and Place in Canadian Women's History', Not Just Pin Money: Selected Essays on the History of Women's Work in British Columbia 1984, p.1
As mentioned already, sources that have typically been used to garner information about women include such textual records as: newspapers, government records, court documents, church materials, memoirs, diaries, personal letters, scrapbooks, and genealogies. Non traditional sources from the decorative, fine, and commercial arts can also add to our understanding of women in the past. These non-textual documents include, samplers, sketchbooks, clothing, domestic utensils, and furniture.
All these sources contribute to an evolving portrait of women in British Columbia over the last one hundred and fifty years. During this time women have had a number of different roles in society, though initially many women were primarily involved in domestic activities. An example of the extent to which women's lives were dominated by domestic affairs can be seen through the diaries of Alice Tomlinson. Alice was a wife and mother who moved in 1879 with her missionary husband Robert, and her brother Ned, to the Kispiox Valley to establish a new Anglican mission. The following is how she describes two days in her life:
"April 19 Saturday"
Diary Excerpts, BC Archives, MS-2725, Journal Kept by Alice Tomlinson, 1879, pp.1-4
Daily domestic work in a woman's life generally included the management of a household, as well as the education of children, nursing, and subsistence agriculture.