At a recent WAVE meeting, WAVE had the privilege to hear from Marlena Wyman, Edmonton’s Historian Laureate, about the history of (predominantly white) women in Edmonton.
Marlena Wyman, Edmonton’s fifth Historian Laureate, is an archivist and artist and uses art to tell the story of women’s voices from Edmonton. “The Historian Laureate is the City’s official ambassador on historical matters and promotes the history of the city and its citizens by documenting, researching, interpreting and speaking about the people, places, and events that have created Edmonton’s distinctive heritage and character.” Find out more about the role of the Historian Laureate here.
Wyman spoke to WAVE about the significant gaps in women’s histories and contributions in archival collections. The voice of early prairie women was largely excluded from mainstream history. In addition to women’s voices being excluded, LGBTQIA communities, people of colour, and Indigenous people’s stories have also been excluded.
Wyman shared the importance of valuing and preserving records that we may all have in our own homes, or our parents’ or grandparents’ homes, and how those records (e.g., a woman’s journal of her day to day life) may seem insignificant but are important in preserving history. WAVE was provided with a document to print off and put in boxes of photos and records so that we can ensure these stories and histories are preserved and valued. Please download this document, print some copies and put them in your family’s records, and consider encouraging your friends and family to do the same.
Through creativity, Wyman brings to life the stories of early prairie women to bring awareness. She explores historical feminist issues that are similar to current day feminist issues. The women she focuses on are predominately white, European settlers. She explained why this is who most of her work is focused on.
My paternal grandparents were prairie settlers from Great Britain and the US, so I am telling the story of my heritage.
Because of my white settler background, I do not feel that it is my place to tell the story of Indigenous women or women from other cultures. However, neither do I want to ignore those stories, so that poses a dilemma for me that I have not completely solved yet. I have made some community connections through a Visual Arts Alberta program where I am an artist mentor for newcomer and indigenous artists. At times when I have some curatorial influence over exhibits, I have advocated for the inclusion of Indigenous artists and artists from other cultures, but this has been random and not always successful. So I welcome any input about how I can include these voices, especially during my term as Historian Laureate.
I gain inspiration for my artworks from archival documents such as diaries, letters and photographs. Although the history of white women in archives is sparse, the history of indigenous women and immigrant women from other cultures is almost non-existent in archives, and so even if I felt comfortable including those stories as inspiration for my art, that first-person documentation simply does not exist for the most part. This is why I am using my term as Historian Laureate to try to get the word out about filling these gaps.
The connection between archival documents and the way Wyman presents the stories through art brings to life the lives of these early settler women. Wyman showed several pieces of her art and shared the stories of the women she depicts.
The first piece of art is Prairie Madonna: Letters of Desperation. The inspiration for this was from two anonymous prairie women’s letters that were published in the Western Producer magazine in 1927. The letters read:
“I am a mother of 5 children, the oldest being 7 years. I am 25 years old. We live on the farm, but owing to sickness we haven’t got on very well. I trust we will do better soon, but debts are a very constant worry… Please send information on birth control.”
“I am 31, the mother of 7 children, eldest 11 years, and youngest 8 months, not at all strong, and owing to farm conditions, very heavily in debt. I would like to have any information I can get re: birth control.”
These were written to Violet McNaughton, who was the editor of the Western Producer newspaper’s Women’s Column from 1925 to 1950. Violet was an agrarian feminist and among her many accomplishments, she lead a campaign to bring trained midwives and health care to farm families. Birth control information was illegal at this time, so through cover activities, such as sewing circles, she shared information around family planning.
The next painting was called Our Plan of a House, and was inspired by the diary of Alda Dale Randall (She went by Dale). She and her husband Guy moved from North Dakota to homestead near High Prairie, Alberta in 1917. She kept a diary from 1920 to 1935.
On May 9, 1920, the day that they moved into their newly built house, she wrote:
“I work for hours on our plan of a house and decide I can furnish it with just what I have if Guy will make the furniture for me – and he loves to, thank goodness! Thought of a “children’s corner” in Living Room and like the idea. Oh, I can take my blue dress – the light silk and cotton I wore in Wyoming and make curtains; with yellow under curtains of cheese cloth it will be lovely! Guess I’ll make a new pillow of my feathers – I’ve a nice little gunny sack here!”
It’s unknown if she ever decorated because according to her diary, they had to abandon the homestead a few months later on August 29th. They then lived in tents and abandoned cabins on other homesteads that they subsequently applied for and then had to abandon. They did finally successfully complete the homestead requirements in 1928 and owned their own quarter section of land north of High Prairie. Many homesteads failed among early settlers (57% in Saskatchewan and 45% in Alberta).
This piece of art includes a page from Dale’s Diary that showed her drawing of the house plan.
Wyman tried to locate Dale’s descendants after spending time reading her diary and creating an entire exhibit from her 1920 diary. She was unable to, but fortunately one of Dale’s granddaughters saw an advertisement about the exhibit in the local paper and contacted the Provincial Archives of Alberta where the exhibit was mounted. From there the archives ended up hosting a family reunion at the exhibit and 53 of her descendants attended! Wyman states that one of her goals with her work is to bring connections from the past to the art. This was a remarkable and unusual opportunity to bring people back together thanks to the record keeping, preservation, and creative storytelling.
Hearing the stories of early prairie women were touching to WAVE. The painting Mat No More moved some members to tears. This was a story of Mary Capling Hyde, based on her diaries and representation of the loss of her husband Mat.
Now at the City of Edmonton Archives (#MS253), Mary wrote in her diary every day from 1900 to 1944. On July 7, 1915, Mary writes that her husband Mat enlisted in the Canadian military. While Mat was serving overseas, Mary wrote in her daily diary entries “Mat in England” or “Mat somewhere in France”. On September 26, 1916, Mat was killed in action, near Courcelette, France on the Somme Front. After Mat died, Mary wrote “Mat no more” every day in her diary passages until her last diary entry on December 28, 1944, shortly before she died.
Wyman closed her presentation with the inspiring story of Gladys’ Reeves. The painting Back to the Garden is named after Gladys’s quote:
“‘Back to the garden’ might well be a motto put into action by employed and unemployed alike; it costs little for seed, and the energy and time will be amply repaid by the fresh vegetables with which to help out our larder, and a few 10 cent packets of flower seed will brighten many a lot and cheer us up if we feel depressed!”
Gladys was a member of, and advocate for, the Vacant Lot Society which encouraged growing vegetables and flowers in the City’s unsightly vacant lots. She was an active Edmontonian in the early to mid-20th century. She owned a photography studio, worked to beautify Edmonton and preserve the river valley, became the first woman president of the Edmonton Horticultural and Vacant Lot Society, formed the Edmonton Tree Planting Committee, and was a charter member of the Soroptomist Society, among many other accomplishments. Many of the mature trees lining the boulevards in inner Edmonton were planted by Gladys and her committee close to 100 years ago!
Marlena keeps a fantastic blog that goes into more depth about her work.
Thank you to Marlena for her work, presentation, and for providing her note to assist with writing this post.
Please don’t forget to print this home archives document form and put it in your boxes of writing, documents, and photographs.