The title of my upcoming book, An Unrecognized Contribution, could apply to women in western civilization in any century. Women faced discrimination. Historians wrote them out of histories. Educational institutions refused to accept them. Male employers refused to hire them. Publishers refused to publish them. Yet despite these blocks and frustrations, women persisted in advancing their careers and often holding positions equal to or superior to their male counterparts.
Today there is a vast body of work, mainly by women historians and other female researchers, documenting the roles women held over the centuries in various countries. Some of this information can be gleaned from artifacts in museums and archives, or early diaries, those that still exist. The best sources are the earliest documents and other material that is held in these locations. Over time, researchers assume that information about women in major positions cannot possibly be accurate and refuse to include that information in their accounts. For example, centuries of translators of the Holy Bible assumed that there could be only male apostles, and despite the obvious female endings of the noun, they translated a female apostle, Junia, as a male. It was only recently, partly because of feminist writings, that Bible translators have realized that a feminine ending is a feminine ending.
Frescoes in catacombs and other artwork and sculptures are other sources of information long neglected. We now know that there were numerous female bishops and other leaders in the early Christian church, a phenomenon that has been denied by male leaders for centuries.
While religious researchers have long denied the existence of prominent female leaders, the same has happened in secular society. In my book Canadian Women in the Sky, I document the few women who dared to climb aboard the early aircraft as airline passengers in spite of the admonition that riding in aircraft at first was reserved for men only. It was not long before some women found their way to piloting the flying machines and not just riding in them as passengers. Finding this information was not easy as the keepers of history try to protect the kind of information that would encourage other women to become “non conformist” and “rogue”.
In An Unrecognized Contribution about women in nineteenth-century Toronto, I present women in positions they were not supposed to have held. Numerous women worked outside the home, owning factories, stores, taverns, market gardens, brickyards, butcheries and other establishments, becoming doctors, photographers, lawyers and other professionals such as artists, writers and musicians. Official accounts state that women worked only as teachers, servants and governesses, or house-bound wives baking bread and sewing clothes.
It is exciting to discover women in prominent positions, overthrowing the handcuffs, constrictions and limitations imposed upon them over the years. Perhaps you, too, will find some of your ancestors who went beyond the acceptable boundaries for women. At the very least, you will enjoy these accounts of rebel women who refused to allow unwritten policies and restrictions to subvert their dreams.
Elizabeth (Liz) Gillan Muir has taught Canadian history at Waterloo University and the University of Toronto. She has written extensively about women in Upper Canada and recently published a history of Riverdale, Toronto. Elizabeth holds degrees from Queen's University, the Harvard Business School, and a Ph.D from McGill University. She lives in Toronto. Learn more here.