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Book Review: While the Women Only Wept, Janice Potter-MacKinnon

41JP05VA33L._SL500_AA300_While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women in Eastern Ontario by Janice Potter-MacKinnon (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993. Pp. xvi, 199. $34.95.)

In Canada, where popular historical memory of the brave deeds and sacrifices of the Loyalist pioneers and War of 1812 militiamen were essential to the definition and celebration of Canadian national identity, women were largely excluded from this construction of national identity. Since this definition of Canadian identity was so closely connected to war, this exclusion was based on the behind-the-scenes nature of women’s wartime participation. In the memory of Canada’s beginnings, “specific female images (or images of femininity in general) as symbols of loyalty and patriotism in Upper Canada are almost completely lacking in the discourses of the period, and they display a general reluctance to admit that women could have contributed to the war effort as civilians.”[1] Just as women were excluded from constructions of national identity, they were also less likely to participate in the decision to become Canadian in the first place.

In the case of the Loyalists, historian Janice Potter-MacKinnon emphasizes that women Loyalists often had no active role in the decision to remain loyal to Great Britain or the decision to leave their homes in the United States. Most loyalist women “merely lived with the implications of the decisions made by the men in their lives.”[2] Her study of the contributions of Loyalist women, While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women, challenges the traditional, and she argues carefully constructed, narrative of the Loyalists that celebrated the actions of men and largely ignored or discounted the actions of women. William Kirby’s 1894 poem, Canadian Idylls, the source of Potter-MacKinnon’s title; captures this celebration of manly sacrifice in the men “who had loved the cause that had been lost, and kept their faith to England’s crown.”[3] Exiled, they left behind all but  “their honor and the conscious pride of duty done to country and to king . . . while the women only wept at thoughts of firesides no longer theirs; at household treasures reft.”[4] The men, though losers, are heroes. The women are only concerned with the loss of material possessions and through their weeping make no significant contribution to the Loyalist endeavor. In fact, they are incapacitated by their emotions. Potter-Mackinnon challenges this narrative through her discussion of women’s numerous contributions to the Loyalist cause. From maintaining and protecting property and business when their husbands had fled to British lines, to caring for their families in refugee camps, and finally proving indispensable in efforts to create new homes in Canada. The women Potter-MacKinnon describes barely had time to weep. Nevertheless, loyalty in Canada became “a male concept in that it was associated with political decision-making” a sphere from which Loyalist women and their predecessors more than one hundred years later were excluded.[5]

As in the United States and Great Britain, attempts to gain full citizenship for women faced numerous challenges in Canada; one of these challenges was the absence of women in popular historical memory that exhibited the traits celebrated in male Loyalists. The popular memory of the Loyalists posed a unique challenge to Canadian women reformers, “the notion that the Loyalists were the founders of a nation had obvious and unequivocal gender implications. The amateur historian William Canniff was right when he equated the ‘founders’ with the ‘fathers’” in his 1869 History of the Settlement of Upper Canada.[6] During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Canadian women would attempt to rectify this situation through their efforts to discover and popularize female historical figures that exemplified the ideal of loyalty without overstepping the bounds of women’s sphere as defined by Victorian society.

Rachel A. Snell

The ideas discussed in this book review are further developed in the following posts:

Memory and Identity in the Legacy of the War of 1812: Introducing Laura Secord

Memory and Identity in the Legacy of the War of 1812: National Identity and Historical Memory

Memory and Identity in the Legacy of the War of 1812: Defining National Identity for Canadian Women

Rachel A. Snell, “Book Review: While the Women Only Wept,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), December 4, 2012, https://khronikosum.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/book-review-while-the-women-only-wept-janice-potter-mackinnon/.


[1] Cecilia Morgan, “”Of Slender Frame and Delicate Appearance”: The Placing of Laura Secord in the Narratives of Canadian Loyalist History,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5, no. 1 (1994): 200.

[2] Janice Potter-MacKinnon, While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 158.

[3] Ibid., xvii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] Ibid.

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