As sturdy as the heroic figures and monumental deeds of times past might seem, there is an inherent paradox in what we know of history. Often framed from a distance, these textbook narratives are neither completely false nor completely true, but rather are, at best, an interpretation of available facts. So the issue then becomes not what we know of history, but what we don’t know of history. What do those missing or peripheral details add to our broader understanding of the past, present and future?
These issues rest at the core of “Pioneer Ladies [of the Evening],” currently on view at Platform in Winnipeg. Curated by historian Laurie K. Bertram, the exhibition isolates—and to some degree invents—the stories of five women based on late-19th- and early-20th-century mug shots Bertram dug up in the Winnipeg Police Service files. Fleshed out by archival materials and objects on loan from various public and private collections, these counter-narratives suggest a parallel history of Western Canada where noble ideals of the official past are contrasted with the less-recognized struggles and, in the case of these five women, the uneven criminal realities of pioneer life.
Earlier this spring, Bertram spoke with Bryne McLaughlin about the strategies for the exhibition and discussed how the dominant themes of marginalization and inequality she uncovered continue to reveal much about history and society in Western Canada.
Bryne McLaughlin: To start, can you tell me a bit about how Winnipeg and the police mug shots became a catalyst for the show?
Laurie K. Bertram: As a historian, my focus is on material and visual culture, but also on memory and trauma, among other things. I’m from Winnipeg, so I’m very familiar with the disappearance of women who are involved in the sex trade, or are alleged to be in the sex trade—basically women on the margins—and the failure of people in Winnipeg to see their disappearances and their deaths as anything worth commemorating or mourning.
In my scholarship on memory and trauma, that’s a really important part of understanding how a society views human life. Today, when people say “at-risk women” or “women involved in the sex trade” it’s often a not-so-secret code for “aboriginal women.” So it’s got all these weird trappings where the discussion is, in a not-so-critical way, about racism and the unequal treatment of First Nations women—not only in the justice system, but also in popular culture and popular memory.
The show is actually not so much about commemorating trauma as it is about reordering that idea of certain lives being more meaningful than others. The scope of the show is from 1878 to about 1916. It begins with mug shots from the Winnipeg Police archives of five women on the margins—and it’s a range of women, from immigrants working as domestics to madams or sex-trade workers to women who were arrested for theft. These images were taken in a really interesting period of photography in the West, when mug shots were more about having your portrait taken and the women were very much posing for the camera.
BM: So there is much more to consider in these photos than just the criminal records?
LKB: There are a couple of things that I really like about the mug shots.
One, the women were really interesting. They came from a really broad cross-section of Canadian society at the time. There were a lot of Irish-Canadian and English-Canadian women; there’s an Icelander; and there’s substantial representation of the black community in Winnipeg, which doesn’t get a lot of press. So it changes that entrenched idea of the sex trade meaning one thing and one type of person, and that automatically starts to destabilize these kinds of popular myths that you find in Winnipeg.
The second thing that caught my attention are their clothes. I’m really interested in the idea of self-fashioning. For some of these women, you can really see their personalities in the clothing that they wore. There’s one woman who was arrested for producing lewd images in 1916. She was an early Canadian pornographer. She looks like she got pulled out of bed in the middle of the night. Her clothes are lumpy and her hair isn’t done. But then you have other women, like this young madam who is featured in the show, and she looks like a million bucks. She’s got this really elaborate hair, a huge hat and this beautiful beaver-fur-collared coat and she’s really mugging it up. The way she’s looking at the camera, you can read a lot into that. She looks great.
What the show does is take these images that were supposed to be about capturing or incarcerating women permanently, and it reverses them. The women in these images are responding, in a way, to their arrest, responding to any kind of preconceived notions of who they might be. The clothing in the show is from the period that these women were arrested individually, and the installations take the two-dimensional image and make it three-dimensional—they’re brought out of the mug shot and onto a mannequin. Also, I’ve picked clothing that reflected their style. Some of them had really simple clothes; others had a thing for fancy hats, and you could tell some really liked beadwork or texture. I tried to reflect those personal choices.
BM: So you’ve created personality types around each of these women in the displays in the exhibition. How did you treat their individual circumstances? What makes these five personalities extraordinary?
LKB: There are a lot of themes I explore. Each woman gets a little blurb beside their image that describes the conditions surrounding their arrest. Then I invented what I call a “commemorative landscape” that not only recognizes women on the margins, but heroizes them by asking how these women become part of our collective memory in the West. They become pioneers. It confronts this really rigid image of who the founders of Canada really were.
I deliberately chose five women to respond to the Famous Five monument at the Manitoba Legislature grounds, which memorializes the five women who won recognition for women as “persons” in 1929. The women featured in the show are the “other” five women of that history. And judging from the research that I’ve done surrounding the circumstances of these “others” and their arrests, the men who are part of the recognizable heritage of Canada were often patrons who were involved in these arrests and these economies.
BM: So some of the stalwarts of textbook history were officially implicated in the nefarious activities that your five “others” represent?
LKB: Occasionally they are publicly implicated in scandals. For example, you find the names of sons of prominent provincial lawyers or men who were part of the business class in Winnipeg popping up in reference to the arrests. But more often than not, you find that the police were covering up for the men who were involved in patronizing brothels. In the case of the 22-year-old madam that I’ve profiled, the police actually busted her at her house and they let all of the male patrons go. While they were arresting her, a carload of men arrived at the house and the police said, “We’re busting this place, you should go.” It’s amazing. She really takes the brunt of punishment, as is the case for most of these women.
BM: Were the backgrounds of the five women featured in the show very different from the backgrounds of the Famous Five? Were they politically active at all? They were suffragists in their own right, after all.
LB: That’s an interesting way of putting it. They were definitely trying to make a living when the odds were very much stacked against them. In that respect, it was heroism. In regards to the actual political and social circumstances of the suffragettes and these women, you see a really wide divide. The women who won the Persons Case in 1929 were incredibly religious, often Protestant and middle-class, or had connections to the middle class. They were certainly discriminated against based on their sex, but not in the compounded way that these other women were.
BM: Are the semi-fictional elements you’ve added to these five stories intended to embed legitimacy in what these women were doing in their lives? Do they act as a kind of cue to a broader perspective?
LKB: The purpose of this show is to reorient the way that people in the West see heritage and see people who are meaningful to heritage. It creates the possibility of different heritages and different commemorative landscapes that unsettle those hegemonic ideas about the way that things were and are. With this show, I not only wanted to create this kind of question about who we commemorate and who we don’t commemorate, but I also wanted to look at the women themselves, at their personalities and, in many respects, at their really remarkable lives.
Some of them were very interesting people. One of the women is this maid who in 1879 beat the shit out of a madam with a broomstick because she wouldn’t pay her. It’s interesting because this woman was working as a maid in a brothel and so the madam was obviously trying to pressure her into picking up sex work. A lot of women were hired as maids and then pushed into sex work. Talk about standing up for yourself and really resisting the kinds of forces that take your life in a direction you don’t want it to go!
There’s always this weird language surrounding violence against sex trade workers, where they’ve been “dehumanized” and we have to “re-humanize” them. I think that this idea really drops the ball, because no one is ever actually “dehumanized”—we just accept the ongoing idea that they are.
So this show doesn’t really attempt to “re-humanize” people that are already human, but it does “super-humanize” them. I hope it challenges people to think about what is a meaningful or meaningless life in a way that’s not harsh or confrontational. Hopefully, they see these things and read these stories and they recognize elements of themselves. It’s less of a condemnation of Canadian society than a kind of experiment, an opening up of new doors to how we think about the past.
BM: One last thing: you talked about the persistent stereotype of First Nations women and the sex trade in Winnipeg. What effect do you think the exhibition’s more diverse and complicated portrait of marginalized women might have on that point of view?
LKB: I deliberately tried to have a really broad cross-section in the show. In 1879, the maid that beat the shit out of the madam is Icelandic. The 22-year-old madam is Irish-Canadian, possibly Catholic, I’m not sure. The pornographer woman has an Anglo name, though I’m not totally sure she’s Anglo. Then I have two African-Canadian women in the show, and that’s not for the sake of including women of colour; we actually see this really broad cross-section in the archives.
The idea of women on the margins and women in the sex trade in Winnipeg has always had this connection to First Nations communities, which continues to be a popular conception among white people in Winnipeg. Of course, people in Winnipeg don’t talk about this openly. But you just have to look at the treatment of missing women in the West and you see that there is this coded language that is really also about race in a way that dismisses women.
I guess this is, for me, a little historical mirror for Winnipeg to look at its past and to disrupt these pre-established notions about who women on the margins are. The ultimate message is that those categories shift—and not only have they shifted in the past, they can also shift in the future. The situation in the Canadian West with this marginalization of women is not a permanent state. It can change, it should change, and I think it will change.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article was corrected on May 24, 2012. The original version stated that the scope of the show was from 1878 until 1926, and it also referred to 1929 as the year Canadian women won the vote. In fact, the exhibition covers the period from 1878 until 1916, and 1929 is the year the Persons Case was decided, officially earning recognition for women as “persons.”