Nfld. & Labrador

Bonavista symposium to focus on the long history of women's work in N.L.

You may not see the names of many women in historical documents, says Terry Bishop-Sterling, but their work in the home and outside was essential to the province.

Women are often hidden in historical documents but their work has always been essential

Today, women like those of the Paul family of Come By Chance work on the boats. But even when that job was primarily done by men, women also did essential fisheries work. (submitted photo)

In the official documents that many academics rely on to trace the province's history, women are often hidden, their names absent from the records of government and business over the centuries.

But they were there, often doing work that was essential to holding Newfoundland and Labrador communities together. That work and its history will be revealed, discussed and celebrated at Coastal Women: A Saltfish Symposium in Bonavista, as the history of the province's women is shared through talks, readings and music.

"I think people don't appreciate how much women were at the core of keeping communities together," said Terry Bishop-Sterling, a historian who will be speaking at the symposium, which begins Thursday.

Women's history in the province stretches back as far as men's, Bishop-Sterling said, and women have been involved in all aspects of Newfoundland and Labrador from running the household and raising children to making money and developing industries.

Women and children on shore were responsible for laying out and tending to the salt flakes while the men fished. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

As soon as the first Aboriginal/Indigenous people came, women came," she said. 

"They worked, they built communities, they took care of families, they were part of the economy, the fishery and other parts of the economy as well."

A rich and complex history

We tend to talk about extremes in women's history in this province, Bishop-Sterling said, portraying women throughout Newfoundland and Labrador's history as either living hard, poor lives or enjoying a high degree of freedom and independence.

But there are as many women's histories here as there have been women, she said, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle for most. 

"It's a much richer, more complex story than I think a lot of people realize."

As Newfoundland moved from into a fresh-frozen fishery, women made up the bulk of fish plant workers. (Land & Sea 1981)

Much of that story involved caring for children and the home, she said, often on their own when men were away for work, whether it was just for the day or for weeks or months at a time.

"In Newfoundland, often they were the only ones left in communities when men were away working," Bishop-Sterling said. 

That household production work was very much a part of the economy, but women worked in the more common sense of the word as well, said David Bradley, chair of the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation. That work will be the subject of some of the sessions at Coastal Women.

Women were actually on the front line and were the first wave of industrial labour in Newfoundland, in certain respects.- David Bradley

"They were doing more than taking care of their community and their homes," Bradley said. "They actually had to provide production for the salt fish industry."

The women and children on shore were often responsible for maintaining salt fish on the flakes while the men were out to sea, he said. Later, as the province transitioned from salt fish to fresh-frozen production, women were often the ones working in fish plants.

"Women were actually on the front line and were the first wave of industrial labour in Newfoundland, in certain respects," he said.

Making research public

Over the past two decades, the body of research on the role of women in Newfoundland and Labrador society has been growing, Bishop-Sterling said. However, much of that research hasn't made its way to the general public.

There was a focus on the role of women both at home and overseas during the recent First World War commemorations, she said, and she hopes that whetted people's appetites to learn more.

"It takes a lot more digging to find the role of women, but of course we all know it," she said. 

"We hear it in our families."

Coastal Women: A Saltfish Symposium begins Thursday in Bonavista. Daytime events are free, and tickets for evening events are sold through the Garrick Theatre.

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