Sunday, July 29, 2018

Walk the Talk: The Fearless Other Women in St. John's

We're on vacation in Newfoundland, Canada this week and as always, it's been a bit of a busman's holiday with a couple museum visits. My time here also included a great walking tour: The Other Women's Walk, created by Ruth Lawrence and presented/acted by Bridget Wareham, Wendi Smallwood, and Monica Walsh.

I was curious about what this tour would be like after reading about it in a local paper--so I walked down a few blocks from where we're staying and assembled with a group of about twenty.  Over the course of about an hour, we walked in and around Bannerman Park, learning the stories of women from the 1920s--and particularly, learning the stories of women for whom suffrage potentially meant little as they were working so hard to make a living, living on the margins. We met a sex worker, a cook, a factory worker and union activist, an Irish immigrant who found solace in another immigrant--a Chinese laundry worker, a teacher and our guide for the hour, a worker behind a bar.

As someone who thinks a great deal about historic site interpretation, and has been in many conversations about what you can say and what you can't say to visitors, I was struck by the power and frankness of the stories shared.  It was a fearless kind of feminism that I wish I saw more often in museums and historic sites.  I won't recap the whole tour, but here are just a few of the notes I jotted down:
  • "I'm in a war every day fighting to stay alive."  A sex worker discussing the governor general's wife's war efforts during World War I as contrasted with her own life.
  • In front of the historic Confederation building, the former seat of government "Here is where the laws are made to control us--laws made by men."  The bar worker after sharing a story of her own rape.  As we walked away from the building, she asked us to turn around. "That's stunning, isn't it?  That's [also] repression."
  • "They think nothing of one who holds the needle."  Labor organizer, who also reminded us that we can choose where to spend our money.
  • At a stop in front of a small monument to Shawnawdithit, the last living member of the Beokuk nation, we were asked to bow our heads in a moment of silence in her honor and "We'd do well to remember that we are guests on native soil."

Each stop was clearly based on research and directly related to a place (and their research is all credited on the project website).   It was a great reminder of how much history is there to be found and that all of our interpretation can go beyond the standard, great white man (and his supportive wife) still too often found in historic houses or the kind of walking tour focused on architecture (as we heard at the start, gently but firmly--if you're interested in those curved windows or the staircase, this is not the tour for you!).

I found it interesting that this was a performance--I'm used to projects like these that really encourage dialogue--and this didn't explicitly do so. Although in eavesdropping on my fellow participants, I found them relating the issues discussed to their own lives.  It didn't really give us a chance to talk to strangers, but I'm guessing many people continued those discussions in different ways after the walk.

The other aspect to the performance, as opposed to a more standard walking tour, is that every single piece of information wasn't included.  The creator, Ruth Lawrence, made sure all the information worked and moved a story forward.  And then three compelling actresses delivered--not just facts, but a sense of real women and real stories.

Kudos to all involved--I'll be thinking about this experience for a long time.

And a small shout-out to where I read about the tour:  The Overcast, Newfoundland's alternative newspaper, picked up at the Rocket Bakery, my absolute favorite place for coffee in St. John's.