A Silent Revolution? Gender and Wealth in English Canada, 1860-1930.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Tillotson, Shirley
Pub Date: 12/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: A Silent Revolution?: Gender and Wealth in English Canada, 1860-1930 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Baskerville, Peter
Accession Number: 248907024
Full Text: A Silent Revolution?: Gender and Wealth in English Canada, 1860-1930. By Peter Baskerville (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. viii plus 376 pp. $85.00 cloth, $29.95 paper).

As the punctuation of its title suggests, the massive empirical contribution that this book makes raises some questions. If, as Baskerville clearly shows, many women (rich, poor, and middling) owned and managed property in various ways throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, why did the sexist simplicities of separate spheres ideology have so long a lifespan? If women's ownership and control of wealth grew, varying by kind, somewhere between threefold and sixfold between 1860 and 1930, how could images of their unsuitability for business have continued to hold any power? Why, in the 1960s and 1970s, did it seem important and necessary to point out as "non-traditional" the accomplishments of women in business, when in 1901, a much greater percentage of working women were either self-employed or employers than was the case even in 1996, after much feminist ferment? In short, the big question behind this book is "how do changes in social being affect (or fail to affect) social ideology?"

One answer to this question was the foundation of a certain kind of social history, avid Baskerville is one of Canada's most important practitioners of the genre. This is the social history that, faced with the silence of the past majority, refused to treat the unpublished ideas and values of the masses as unknowable. Instead, with great diligence, imagination, and skill, Baskerville and others have used data that was gathered for governance and business purposes as a means to find out things about those voiceless many. In A Silent Revolution?, Baskerville investigates correlations between gender, social location, and behavior such as investing, bequeathing, trading, borrowing, and lending, and creatively (but carefully) infers from those correlations new information about the range of possibility and constraint in women's business lives. That range was much wider than the doctrine of separate spheres stipulated.

This methodological orientation is sceptical about discursive sources as material for historical social description. Baskerville proceeds from the belief that the statistical analysis of social and economic data (originally collected for other purposes) allows him to see patterns of behavior that contemporaries did not notice. If this belief is right, then statistical analysis allows him to show us social change that was underway before contemporaries noticed it. And that means, he is showing us in retrospect the changing balance of forces in everyday life that ultimately altered consciousness and political power. Thus, in A Silent Revolution?, Baskerville meticulously and thoroughly investigates the business dealings of a very large and carefully chosen sample of Canadian urban women, observes their increasing wealth and autonomous business activity, and draws a conclusion about the significance of this material change for political life. "In the aggregate," he concludes, "[these women's] many public acts of competency in the fields of finance and business set the stage for reform in the public arena of politics."(247)

There is a risk that this approach might seem naively structuralist. But, more than in some of his earlier works (Unwilling Idlers, for example), Baskerville is willing to acknowledge that categorical characterizations of ideology as either the product of social relations (or a mystifying screen hiding the workings of history) are unwise. However, he does expect us to try to see the past without ideological blinders. Some historians may be sceptical about whether that is possible, and instead prefer to praise Baskerville for the fruitful results of his particular ideological orientation. Nowhere else in the North American literature on this period will readers find as deep and developed a description of such fundamental elements in family and community life as small scale borrowing and lending, and the management of savings through investments of various kinds. These kinds of capitalist activities, carried on at a modest level by a broad swath of North Americans, were crucial to household economies as well as to "the economy." Without his conviction (deeply ideological, in no pejorative sense) that these aspects of life must have mattered to consciousness and politics, Baskerville would not have labored so mightily to produce this book.

Some feminist historians of women may dispute Baskerville's charge that their emphasis on oppression, as much as conservatives notions of "traditional" families, has distorted our ability to see the past accurately. An oppression analysis points to systematic constraints (largely confirmed by Baskerville's findings) but accepts that those constraints generate corresponding openings for women's agency. So an oppression analysis survives a description of some, even many, women acting as liberal property owners mainly within their "sphere." Baskerville's data explode only the more deeply a historical view of women as naturally private beings whose familial economic life always entailed subordination to the will of an individual patriarch. That said, Baskerville's bringing to light the rich variety and significant extent of women's property owning (whether as wealthy women or keepers of boarding houses) should make us look again at the role of property interest in the fate of the late nineteenth century enfranchisement projects. In this way, seeing the past more accurately should lead us to investigate what structuralist social history often misses: the mechanisms by which the multiplying in daily life of routine transactions becomes a force that changes institutions.

By making so clear the gap between quotidian practices (especially the growing proximity in middle-class life, over his period of study, of men's and women's control of wealth) and the ideas of women's incapacity for business, Baskerville's empirical contribution in this work makes a superb case study of a fundamental methodological problem. Polemical enough to be interesting, but measured enough to be taken seriously, A Silent Revolution? should be required reading for graduate classes. Thoroughly grounded in the American literature, its arguments about the significance of place and specific legal regimes makes it as relevant, conceptually, to Illinois as to Nova Scotia. This is not national or nationalist history. And while its massive statistical documentation will make it a bit forbidding to undergraduates, the digested version of its more startling findings will make great new undergraduate lecture material. It will make the students wonder.

Shirley Tillotson

Dalhousie University
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