History student's photography project on display in Dana Porter library

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In Her Shoes panorama

Heather MacDonald's exhibit examines the identities and relationships of working class women in Canada from the 1930s to the 1950s. Heather created these images to tell a story about the experiences of two women during this period. 

In Her Shoes: Working Women in Canada from 1930-1950

A Photographic Interpretation

To understand working-class women’s experiences in Canada from 1930 to 1950, we have to see them through those women’s eyes. We must understand that history does not necessarily mean progress. For example, in the 1950s women’s employment opportunities were more limited than they had been during World War II. To argue that the war was a “golden age” for female workers or that the postwar period was a regression to a more backward social structure misses the subtleties and nuances of history and of women’s experiences. Heather created these images to tell a story: the story of working-class women’s relationship with labour and Canadian society from 1938 to 1955. The images follow the lives of two, fictional, women born in 1922. They represent larger themes and by no means represent all women. They are symbolic of the nuances of history and of the importance of understanding historical actors on their terms, through their eyes, and in their shoes. 

This exhibit was created in HIST 302 Public History, taught by Professor Susan Roy. As a course component, students create their own public history projects in order to critically engage with the production and politics of local and national narratives about the past. 

Heather standing beside her projectHeather's inspiration

Heather’s inspiration for this project came from a photograph of a female employee at the Lang Tannery. Her Public History course visited the Archives in the Doris Lewis Book Room and Jane Britton had bits of the Lang Tannery fonds on display. The woman struck Heather because she did not look like she belonged on the floor of a tannery; she was dressed for office work, but photographed, for whatever reason, on the work floor. The photograph was not dated nor labeled. The fonds for the Lang Tannery gave Heather very little by way of insight into the experiences of female employees, so she broadened her archival research to look at manufacturing work in Kitchener from 1930 to 1950. The hidden gem in all of this was a survey done by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in 1943 regarding postwar planning. This survey showed what “workers” were planning on purchasing after the war. Many of those being interviewed, according to their results, were women. It was what they wanted that Heather found most surprising: refrigerators, stoves, houses, cars, education, travel, were the highest priority for those being interviewed. To Heather, this was incredible! She thought of social mobility for working-class women, how for the first time someone (the Chamber of Commerce) was listening to what they wanted; what they needed. And for the first time, these women had financial means as well as a political attention, if not a political voice.

Two girls posing at 1940s workersHeather decided to capture images of this shift from the Depression to the postwar era because pictures speak to emotions that words cannot. Heather created two characters and modeled their frustrations, joys and ambitions through these photographs in order to illustrate her interpretation of their experiences. 

Heather recently completed her undergraduate degree in History and is attending uWaterloo in the fall to pursue a graduate degree. 

Check out Heather's installation in the Dana Porter Library (the lounge area near the coffee shop to the right of the front doors)!