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Practising Femininity

Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 160
  • Book Info
    Practising Femininity
    Book Description:

    Femininity in colonial societies is a particularly contested element of the sex/gender system; while it draws on a conservative belief in universal and continuous values, it is undermined by the liberal rhetoric of freedom characteristic of the New World. Practising Femininity analyses the ways in which Canadian texts by Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Nellie McClung, Sinclair Ross, and others work to produce and naturalize femininity in a colonial setting.

    Drawing on Judith Butler?s definition of gender as performance, Misao Dean shows how practices which seem to transgress the feminine ideal ? the difficulties of emigration, physical labour, autobiographical writing, work for wages, sexual desire, and suffrage activism ? were justified by Canadian writers as legitimate expressions of an unvarying feminine inner self. Early Canadian writers cited a feminine gender ideal which emphasized love of home and adherence to duty; New Women and Suffrage writers attributed sexuality to a biological desire to reproduce; in the work of Sinclair Ross, the feminine ideal was moulded by prevailing Freudian models of femininity.

    This study is grounded in the most important current gender theories, and will interest Canadian literary scholars, feminist historians and theoreticians, and students of women?s studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7871-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction: Practising Femininity
    (pp. 3-15)

    In Mary Pratt’s paintingChild with Two Adults, a newborn baby is being bathed in a large, decorated china bowl. The bowl sits upon a linen cloth with embroidered and scalloped edging; the angle of view places the child in the centre of the action, situated below the viewer and within easy reach. The child’s head is supported by the left hand of an adult who leans in from the upper left corner, right hand gently splashing warm water on the child’s leg; the second adult is indicated merely by a feminine hand which enters the painting at the lower...

  5. 1 The Female Emigrant’s Guide as the Mending Basket of Domestic Ideology
    (pp. 16-28)

    Abundant commentary on appropriate feminine behaviour in Catharine Parr Traill’sFemale Emigrant’s Guidesuggests the rupture in the ideology of femininity which was caused by immigration to Upper Canada. It was, as Traill says, ‘a matter of surprize’ to middle-class emigrants that their new lives demanded that women contribute economically to the welfare of their families, producing such items as soap, bread, butter, preserves, vegetables, and sugar for household use, or worse, labouring in the fields, chopping, underbrushing, ploughing, and reaping. The commentary which accompanies the practical instructions in theGuidesuggests that, as products of a middle-class society in...

  6. 2 The Broken Mirror of Domestic Ideology: Femininity as Textual Practice in Susanna Moodie’s Autobiographical Works
    (pp. 29-41)

    ‘The Broken Mirror, a True Tale,’ by Susanna Moodie (published in theLiterary Garlandin 1843), takes its name from an anecdote which is rich in symbolic associations. A heartbroken emigrant mother rescues an elaborate Italian mirror from the sale of her family possessions. Initially, the mirror seems to be the symbol of a stubborn attachment to her previous station in life, and she is ridiculed by her neighbours and advisors for refusing to accept the reality of her poverty. However, her decision is justified as the mirror becomes the means of re-establishing her family after their immigration to South...

  7. 3 Translated by Desire: Romance and Politics in Rosanna Leprohon’s Antoinette de Mirecourt
    (pp. 42-56)

    Part way throughAntoinette de Mirecourt, Colonel Evelyn recounts an anecdote in which King George III compliments a French-Canadian matron: the King reportedly told the lady that ‘if all the Canadian ladies resemble[d] her, he had indeed good reason to feel proud of his fair conquest’ (167). In this anecdote, the meaning of the word ‘conquest’ is ambiguous: while it refers conventionally to the military conquest of Quebec by the British forces and its concession by France as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, its modification by the adjective ‘fair,’ drawn from the vocabulary of courtly love poetry...

  8. 4 Explain Yourself: New Woman Fiction in Canada
    (pp. 57-76)

    By the 1880s, the issue of political and social equality for women was gaining a prominent place in public discourse in Canada. The increasing visibility of violence against women within the family, a new ‘scientific’ discourse which located sexual desire in the female body, and the shift to women working outside the home in an industrial economy were among the factors which led women and men to question the logic of the ‘sexual contract,’ and to attribute to women a ‘self which domesticity seemed to proscribe. In 1883 the Toronto Women’s Literary Club emerged from its benign cultural camouflage to...

  9. 5 Voicing the Voiceless: The Practice of ‘Self-expression’ in Nellie McClung’s Fiction and Her Autobiography
    (pp. 77-93)

    The emergent ‘biological’ womanhood of New Woman novels did not extinguish the discourses of domesticity; rather, practices authorized by domestic ideology survived to be incorporated into a contradictory view of woman as both sexual and self-sacrificing, driven towards reproduction yet the natural check on masculine desire, rightly able to perform both domestic work and work for pay (often at the same time). This form of the feminine ideal was modified in the early twentieth century in Canada by intersection with the discourse of democratic individualism in the work of suffrage activitist Nellie McClung. McClung’s fiction and her autobiography dramatize this...

  10. 6 Femininity and the Real in As for Me and My House
    (pp. 94-106)

    As for Me and My Housecites the domestic ideal of earlier fiction in order to undermine its validity. In creating a feminine character who would appear real to a modern reading audience,As for Me and My Housedraws upon the psychoanalytic model of human personality to create a character of ‘surface’ and ‘inner depth,’ whose unconscious motives and desires are constitutive of her femininity. Domesticity thus appears as the deceptive surface; the Freudian narrative of the ‘masculinity complex’ appears as the gendered inner self which motivates feminine practice in the novel. The unresolved tension between two discourses of...

  11. Conclusion: Citing and Reciting
    (pp. 107-110)

    This book has argued a thesis which may be read, in traditional Canadian style, as both deeply conservative and deeply radical. Through readings of texts by women and men, it has suggested that escape from the hierarchy of gender is not as simple as some feminist criticism of Canadian texts would suggest, for gender is inscribed in the subject as part of its formation; gender, in life as well as in texts, is formative of the self. All of the texts examined here self-consciously take femininity as their subject, and work to naturalize Woman as a category of the individual...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 111-124)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 125-134)
  14. Index
    (pp. 135-139)