What is your favourite definition of history and why?
History requires a broad assessment of human and non-human evolution on this planet. At its best, it helps explains material and emotional life for those at the bottom, as well as the top, of all hierarchies. It is always fragmentary, frustrating, and inspiring.
Who is your favourite historian, living or dead, and why?
A hard choice. Over more than a half-century of professional life, I have found inspiration in a wide range of interdisciplinary scholarship, the most significant of which has been feminist. Without the spur of women’s studies (which in Canada has often been closely associated with historians), my life would have been far poorer. In no particular order, and inevitably forgetting many who merit acknowledgement in more than my thousands of footnotes, I’d list historians such as Joy Parr, Alice Kessler-Harris, Joan Sangster, Sheila Rowbotham, and Anne McClintock, and social theorists including Carole Pateman, Iris Marion Young, bel hooks, Margit Eichler, Dorothy Smith, Audre Lorde, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Catharine MacKinnon, Carol Gilligan, and Barbara Ehrenreich.
Although excessive pride is unattractive, of all your writings, which are you most proud of and why?
Most of my work has focused on women but, since our fate is regularly tied to children, their stories, likewise often forgotten by ‘official history,’ took their turn on stage. Two volumes, Fostering Nation? Canada Confronts the History of Childhood Disadvantage (2011), and Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Confronts Adoption from the 19th Century to the 1990s (2006), highlighted how youngsters’ destinies are inextricably tied to the construction of gender, class, race, sexuality, and disability. No level playing field exists anywhere. Fostering Nation? received most applause but Finding Families, Finding Ourselves was more original, harder to write, and taught me the most.
Thinking about your time as president of the CHA/SHC, what was its greatest challenge?
Challenges were many (as were the rewards of comradeship with diverse kindred spirits) but what stood out was the CHA/SHC’s difficult ‘pivot’ to inclusivity of women and racialized minorities, from Jews to Blacks, Asians, and Indigenous peoples. Sexual minorities stood far to the periphery of a wider vision. In face of determined, too often forgotten, resistance, gains in perspective and representation were hard-won and far fewer than desired. Our failure to partner more effectively with scholars in French Canada, particularly with those associated with the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française also continually frustrated me.
If you could give one piece of advice to a member of (someone joining?) the CHA/SHC, what would it be?
Our individual struggles to make sense of daily life in families and workplaces frequently detract from the well-being of civil society and the planet. At its best, the CHA/SHC spurs a broader perspective and field of action.
2022 marks the 100th year anniversary of the CHA/SHC. This milestone gives us pause to reflect on its durability and also on what its future might be. Hence, what do you think the future has in store for the CHA/SHC and for historical research in Canada as the association commences its 2nd centenary?
In the context of environmental tragedy, the COVID pandemic, intensifying global conflict, and the surging ‘learn nothing’ politics of the right in the 21st century, history offers overdue lessons in matters from abortion to race relations and the dangers of the Anthropocene. The CHA/SHC needs to be brave.
If there were one more question you would like to ask other presidents what would it be? Could you please also answer it for yourself?
Why bother? If you don’t, who will? Spectatorship is for cowards.