An Unrecognized Contribution: Women and Their Work in 19th-Century Toronto by Elizabeth Gillan Muir

Women’s historical contributions to public life remain largely unacknowledged. As Muir states in the preface of her book, “on reading histories, especially early histories of Toronto, one could be forgiven for wondering if males were suddenly reproducing themselves … for few histories mention women at all.” But women, as Muir demonstrates, were always there.

The book begins with a look at the establishment of Upper Canada and the often-invisible work that allowed early settlements to thrive. Without women to tend to the gardens, conserve the food, milk the cows, shear the sheep, bake the bread, and sew, wash, and darn clothes, the great men of history books might not have been able to do much else. Stripping the anonymity that often accompanies their contributions, Muir also makes a point to name these women, letting readers know, for example, that when John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, arrived at the future site of Toronto, he was accompanied by wife Elizabeth and their two children. Muir is thus reinserting women into the more well-known histories of male achievement, reminding readers that “women played a major role in the growth and prosperity of the new centre” from the start (p. 7).

Having provided historical context for the settlement of Upper Canada, Muir then unveils the history of female labour in nineteenth-century Toronto, showing us the variety of jobs women held and the conditions under which they worked. The book is more of a compendium than a cohesive narrative history, with brief biographical and historical sketches referencing over 400 women in various disciplines. Its breadth is impressive, drawing from a wide range of sources, including personal diaries, correspondence, and city directories. While there were times when I wished the information flowed more easily, the fractured structure of the book speaks to the dearth of surviving materials related to women’s work and the difficulty of finding enough information to produce a comprehensive account.

Piecing together the experiences of women from different religious, class, and racial backgrounds, Muir offers readers a glimpse into the lives of both ordinary and remarkable women, inviting us to do more research. Though there are only a handful of profiles for Black women, Muir supplements this information with blocks of text on the history of slavery in Canada and the role of women in the underground railroad, providing a fuller picture than might have otherwise been available. As an archivist, I know that women of colour are underrepresented in what is already an underrepresentation of women in archives, so I appreciate how vital these traces can be.

An Unrecognized Contribution certainly reflects Muir’s academic background but is more accessible than many scholarly works. Highlighting the countless roles women occupied outside the home in a century dominated by the idea of separate spheres, this book is a valuable contribution to the history of women and labour in Canada.

Elizabeth Gillan Muir has taught Canadian history at the University of Waterloo and Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. She has written extensively about women in Upper Canada and the role of women in the Christian Church. Elizabeth holds degrees from Queen’s University, the Harvard Business School, and a Ph.D. from McGill University. She lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Dundurn Press (Oct. 18 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1459750020
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1459750029

Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist from the Siknikt district of Mi’kma’ki (Sackville, NB). She is the author of The Sound of Fire, a novel based on the true story of the devastating 1941 fire at Mount Allison University, and a memoir about her father’s battle with cancer entitled Les étoiles à l’aube. She is a graduate of Mount Allison University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. When not writing about the treasures she finds in archives, Renée can be found knitting, foraging, or perusing new titles at her local library.