It should not be too surprising for you to learn that sexism is present in historical parks. I mean, sexism is still present in 2013, shockingly enough. However, when your job as a costumed historical interpreter is to portray a woman in a time period before the emergence of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century, you will likely encounter a certain amount of sexism, inherent in the part, particularly when it comes to portraying women’s roles, women’s etiquette, and the treatment of women by men. The extent to which various historical parks insist upon their staff matching their behaviour to historical roles differs, but in many cases obvious portrayals of historical sexism is a given: e.g., female interpreters (doing first person interpretation, anyway) will not speak publicly as often as men, will more often be found “at home” or “on the farm” than in a workplace (though not always), will often be discouraged from walking the street without a male escort, and so on. Male interpreters may make disparaging remarks about a woman’s place in front of visitors, women may be required to do certain tasks that men wouldn’t do (e.g., serving food or cleaning up if they are visible to visitors), etc. Even programs involving, say, interpreters marching in support of women’s suffrage may also involve some costumed anti-suffrage “protesters”.
However, in these cases, these actions are generally expected and, well, forgivable, as the people in costume are essentially actors playing a role. Agreeing to work in a living history museum generally means that those in costume knew what they were signing up for, and most parties know that what’s said in costume when in front of visitors is not a true expression of one’s opinion of a women’s place in the world. In fact, by portraying historical instances of gender inequality, costumed interpreters hope that they can educate visitors on the origins of sexism today and can unpack and even debunk concepts like “traditional womanhood”. (“Women have always worked outside of the home! No, I’m not going to wait for my husband to come home to chop this firewood. Hand me that ax.”) Addressed in a conscious manner, portrayals of historic examples of sexism society should be used to educate visitors, not make cheap jokes at the expense of women.
Most of the male interpreters I have known, despite the act they put on in front of visitors, are some of the most progressive feminist allies I know. I have worked with colleagues who have felt bad about the “show” they put on for visitors and do all they can to make it up to us. For instance, after I served the gentlemen their tea (in my position as a lowly maid in the fort) for a program for the benefit of visitors, these men would make a point of rolling up their sleeves and doing all of the washing up in the employee-only areas, out of sight of visitors who may question why Fort Edmonton’s Chief Trader or Chief Factor was doing the dishes while the maid put her feet up. While the line between sexism as an act for the benefit of the audience and everyday sexism as encountered in the workplace can be a fine one that is crossed at times – even if it is an act, the psychological effects can still be similar – most male interpreters are conscious of these gender issues and try to make it clear that the historical views of a woman’s place are not their own. Having a respectful workplace is important, even when your workplace involves portraying historical examples of disrespect.
However, aside from the expected performance of historical sexism for the benefit and education of the visitor, there are other forms of sexism at play in historical parks. Namely: can or should female interpreters take on male roles, up to and including portraying men or performing historically male tasks? These issues are particularly important when it comes to positions that are considered prestigious, especially when it comes to job training and acquired skills. For example, at historical military forts such as Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where a great many interpreters are in military positions, is it acceptable to have a female interpreter don a man’s uniform and portray a man? I have heard that in some Civil War re-enactment circles there is some controversy over women wanting to participate more fully than in the “camp follower” or “nursing” positions. Need they limit themselves only to historical women soldiers who dressed up as men to fight for the cause? Or do too many people invoke the nebulous “it’s not historically accurate” “rule”? I’d welcome an inside view, from both the visitors and the men and women in costume! (Side note: one MA student at Carleton this year is writing her thesis on the subject of women soldiers at the Fortress of Louisbourg – I look forward to reading her work, as should you.)
While I am no expert on women in male military uniforms (though I have portrayed a (female) military nurse with the rank of Lieutenant), I can speak to my experience at Fort Edmonton Park. (Disclaimer: I am no longer an employee of Fort Edmonton Park, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect current park policy.) One of the skills I most like to brag about is my ability to drive vehicles from the 1920s. However, as far as I understand it, women interpreters on 1920s Street did not often drive the cars until relatively recently. Why not? Because it was thought to be “historically inaccurate” for a woman to get behind the wheel in 1920. Sorry ladies, but get in the passenger seat, because only men can drive automobiles.
Understandably, this policy would be likely to cause some tension in the workplace. There is a lot of prestige attached to driving such cars, and let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun. Was it “fair” to exclude costumed interpreters from learning this valuable skill simply because of their gender? Now, in this case, there was a fairly simple solution: women interpreters (before my time), fed up with not being allowed to drive, did some digging in the library and the archives and found that yes, women did drive in Edmonton in the past. In fact, while still a minority, female drivers were not even that uncommon a sight in the 1920s in North America and Great Britain! (For example, Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first Premier and a very important figure in the early history of the University of Alberta, played chauffeur to her father for over thirty years in the early twentieth century, as he never learned how to drive.) The “historical accuracy” argument barring women from driving fell apart in the face of documentary evidence, and female interpreters were allowed to get behind the wheel at the park. As is generally the case with programs at Fort Edmonton Park, if an interpreter can prove that it happened in Edmonton during that time period, it’s generally acceptable to present to the public. (This is why the park does not show train robberies, gun fights, or other “Wild West” style performances, no matter how exciting to the public that may be, for the simple reason that as of yet they have not found any evidence of such things occurring in the Edmonton area.)
On a similar note, female interpreters were not allowed to participate in the York Boat arrival program in the fur trade era. (In summary, it involves a contingent of men with a York boat loaded with goods rowing down the river to be greeted by visitors on shore, a spectacle that further emphasizes interpretive themes of travel and trade.) Why weren’t women allowed in the boats at the park? Again, it’s historically inaccurate. The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t want European women taking up valuable space in the boats that could go towards carrying more valuable cargo, and from the late 1600s through to the 1830s, white women were banned from fur trading posts and boats. This ban – which also generally encompassed missionaries and their wives, as they also were not considered profitable goods – was one of the reasons for the rise of “country marriages”, or unions between First Nations women and Euro-Canadian or Scottish company employees. Too bad, female interpreters: you can’t participate in the largest program of the season at Fort Edmonton Park, because we have few written records of women in boats.
There were further practical considerations to be had. The York Boat program requires all hands on deck; it’s one of the largest programs run by the park and requires about twelve or more people in costume to pull off: not only the rowers, the steersman, and the lookout on the boat, but it also at least one person on shore to direct and talk to visitors and one or two people to literally “hold down the fort”, as it can’t be left empty while the program down by the river is under way. As the fort rarely has more than ten paid interpreters present on any given day, plus potential volunteers, to even get enough people at the oars, supervisors and even interpreters from the other time periods would get into the costumes of labourers from the 1840s. In this context of staffing numbers, it was really difficult to justify having additional interpreters – women – as “dead weight” in the boats, and so often they were left on shore, unable to fully participate in what was often considered the biggest program of the year at the fort. Yes, women participated in after-hours rowing practice to fill the ranks of rowers, but could not be in the boats in that position in front of visitors because it was “too inaccurate.”
In this case, with some debate, women were allowed to participate, again by subverting the “historical accuracy” clause: instead of coming from the Hudson’s Bay at the end of a long journey, the boat was portrayed as coming from a different fort, Rocky Mountain House, along with its Chief Trader, John Edward Harriott, and Nancy Harriott, his mixed-blood wife (also the daughter of the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton, John Rowand). In fact, changing the program to one of inter-fort travel instead of the return of the boat brigade from Hudson’s Bay made the optics of the program even more realistic; the park never had enough cargo to fill the boat to “accurately” portray the huge mounds of trade goods that would have been brought from the Bay. (By some accounts, these one ton York Boats could carry up to four tons of cargo!) However, it was just right for some inter-fort travel.
In this case, the question of whether or not the park could allow women on the boats had a relative “easy” solution, simply by demonstrating through historical documentation that women would be on the boats in the past in certain contexts. The “it was really historically accurate!” card was waved to justify the change in policy. More often than not, interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park would rather do additional research to “prove” that women in the past did indeed do the things that interpreters in the present are banned from doing, challenging the supposed historical accuracy of that particular sexist ban rather than the concept of historical accuracy itself. There is good reason for this – as people trying to portray elements of Edmonton life in the past, they don’t want to challenge visitor expectations too much. They want to “accurately” interpret the past as much as possible, holding themselves up to an idealized standard. By subverting visitor expectations a little bit – by challenging the notions that “women didn’t drive in the 1920s!” or “no women were ever on HBC boats ever!” – but in a way that was “true to the past”, interpreters can use the supposed “inaccuracy” to further discussion of historical events instead of just shrugging and awkwardly explaining that what they’re doing isn’t completely “accurate” and missing out on a learning experience for the visitor.
However, what about positions that cannot be “proven” to be “historically accurate”? For example, the “Trade Store” in the fort is one of the most dynamic buildings in which to interpret fur trade history to visitors; it is full of excellent artifacts – furs and trade goods, as illustrated on the left – and allows for some very interesting conversation starters. In many ways it is the “heart” of the fort. However, technically, this is a post that would have been literally “manned” by a (literate) officer who would conduct trading. Would women be in the trade store by themselves? Probably not. (In fact, labourers like Mr. Anderson, pictured, may not have been in there either.) Interpreters don’t often comment on it; if asked, women often claim to be the Cree or Blackfoot interpreter or the wife of the interpreter, whose room is in the trade store, around the corner from the fireplace, out of view. In this case, men and women, who portray a range of socio-economic classes in the fort, all interpret to visitors in this location, for the simple reason that everyone should have a turn to staff the most popular building in the fort.
Then there is the issue of blacksmithing; historically, this was not a skilled trade that First Nations women in the West learned. (Remember, there were no white women at Fort Edmonton in 1846, only Cree and Métis.) Blacksmithing at the park is normally done by experienced volunteers, historical workers, or volunteers, who often teach male employees the basics: e.g., how to make nails, how to make a cloak pin, and so on. Visitors greatly enjoy seeing these men at work. But what about the female interpreters who want to give it a shot? As far as I understand it, this debate is still ongoing, in particular because there are also health and safety issues in play. Men in the fort were allowed to learn to blacksmith but they must wear appropriate footwear: steel toed boots. It isn’t terribly difficult to find black leather boots that look accurate enough for the 1840s to be worn while blacksmithing in costume, but the ladies of the fort are all interpreting First Nations or Métis people. Their costumes always involve mocassins and dresses, which are not ideal blacksmithing wear. Health and safety should always be a consideration, but is it waved as an excuse, leaving only men with the training to learn this fascinating skill?
However, if women are barred from learning historically male skills like blacksmithing because of health and safety issues, should men be barred from learning other skilled female tasks? Alternatively: if women aren’t allowed to blacksmith, should men learn how to do beadwork? The women at the Fort all tend to quickly learn how to do plains-style beadwork on looms, embroider leather, or make beaded necklaces. In fact, considering the busy lives of these indigenous women historically, interpreters probably spend a bit too much time doing beadwork everyday, but it is a source of fascination for visitors as well as entertainment and pride for the staff, and opens up many fascinating conversations about trade goods, status, fashion, and skilled labour. I much preferred to be doing a skilled task when visitors approached me to speak, as opposed to waiting and twiddling one’s thumbs and “springing to life” when a visitor enters the room. You want to appear to have been going about your day when the visitor comes upon you, and asking about what you are doing is an ideal conversation starter. However, male interpreters at the fort really wanted to learn how to do beadwork as well, and in the years I was at the Fort it wasn’t uncommon for men to learn and be found at their bead loom, particularly during the slow hours. Nevertheless, the argument that it was historically accurate for men at the forts, particularly French Canadian or Orkney Islander employees, to do beadwork is a difficult one to make. Often these men would rely upon third person interpretation to explain how beading works instead of addressing visitors in-character while beading.
On the same note, there are a few other objects that should be reserved for the exclusive use of women but are not. With only a handful of accurate and working artifact bikes available on site, all but one of which have the low lady’s bar (to allow for riding while in skirts), is it acceptable for a man to use a lady’s bicycle? Especially if the visitors generally “won’t notice” the difference? Can you single these bikes out exclusively for lady’s use?
Why is it okay to be historically inaccurate in some ways but not in others? Is historical sexism an appropriate justification for modern sexism at historic sites? Need we kowtow to “historical accuracy”? Probably, to some extent, because if we deconstruct the concept too much then it may chip away at the very methodological foundations of living history museums.
Still, I’m not about to give up my historical driver’s license. And let’s be honest, if/when I return to the park, I’d love to give blacksmithing a try. Hey, it’s 2013: we have the right to vote and regularly wear trousers. Nothing can stop us now!
For the purposes of this blog post, I have defined sexism as, roughly, distinguishing between the sexes/genders in a way that is detrimental to one and giving advantage to the other: or, the elevation of one gender over another.
The concept of “historical accuracy” is very nebulous and contested, and I have mused upon it before in an overly-long blog post. Look out for a follow-up post some time in the new year.
Related Posts On Costumed Historical Interpretation and Fort Edmonton Park:
- Immersive Visitor Involvement at Living History Museums, or, Blacksmithing and You!
- Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations
- First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation
- Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part I: Motorcars At Fort Edmonton
- What is Historical Accuracy?
- (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part One (Photo series with commentary)
- Beyond the Bob: 1920s Hairstyles for the Rapunzels Among Us
- Where is Fort Edmonton?