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Everyday Athenas : strategies of survival and identity for ever-single women in British Columbia, 1880-1930 Tallentire, Jenéa

Abstract

This study of single women in the British Columbia context reveals the importance of marital status as a distinct category of analysis for women’s lives. Marital status fractures the gender of women into identities that are deeply structured by relations of power and privilege, creating some fundamental separations between the married woman and the never-married (’ever-single’) woman. By taking marital status into account, we can learn more about the historical intersections between women, gender, and society. By setting the heterosexual dyad aside, we can delve more fully into the varied life-sustaining relationships that women forged, especially with other women. We can more thoroughly reconstruct the social contexts of feminist ideas, and the roots of a female citizenship based on a direct rather than deflected relationship to the nation. We can also trace the nascence of an ’individual’ female subjectivity based in self-reverence rather than self-effacement. And we can decentre the conjugal family, especially the heterosexual dyad, as the essential unit of the Canadian past and the only legitimate site for women’s sexuality. The ’borderlands’ of British Columbia before the Second World War are an excellent place to examine the lives and identities of ever-single women, given the astonishing number of (ever-)single women present in unique demographic and economic conditions that would seem to militate against singleness. This project looks at four themes: survival, status, relationships, and identity. Material conditions of income and household composition offer us some of the strategies of survival single women employed. Looking at the discursive boundaries of certain social groups emphasizes the centrality of single women to (all levels of) society and the leadership that single women bring to both crafting and policing the borders of status groups. The patterns of relationships that ever-single women built and their voices on being single offer important models for thinking through women’s affective lives that do not privilege the heterosexual dyad. And the emplacement of the ever-single woman as ’outside heterosexuality’ suggests some ways though the bind of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy in thinking about women’s lives and especially the hybrid nature of their autobiographical voices.

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