An exhibition at PLATFORM Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts in Winnipeg is testing the sexualized and gendered boundaries of our Canadian history. Curator Dr. Laurie K. Bertram has taken archival mugshots of Western Canadian female sex trade workers, taken from the Winnipeg Police Museum Archive, and reworked them into a new commemorative landscape for the Canadian west. Tailored in a way typically reserved for heroes, legends, and (primarily) men, the exhibition begs the question: “What challenges does the sex trade pose to Canada’s commemorative landscape?” – in other words, what is it about this history that our current culture has pushed aside?
I snagged an interview with Laurie via email to find out more about how historians shape the way we view ourselves (particularly in a country obsessed with identity), and how significant these pioneering women were to the establishment of our Western cities.
Laurie has thoughtfully used her curation to take portraits and flesh them into complete lives, which engage us in a discussion on the gender boundaries of history, while allowing the viewer to imagine new histories that, as Laurie says “acknowledge the remarkable pasts of marginalized and incarcerated women.”
What was the original inspiration or instigating material object that inspired you to do this show?
The whole show is about putting the remarkable lives of women on the margins at the centre of our historical imagination, so it is largely about the thousands of women who have been murdered or gone missing in the past century and what we have lost with them. Two specific historical women inspired the show, both of who had some degree of sex-trade involvement.
I finished a PhD in history at University of Toronto in 2010 and encountered the first woman in the show when I was researching my dissertation on Icelandic-Canadian history (there is a large Icelandic community in Manitoba, where I’m from.) This Icelandic immigrant woman had been hauled up in front of a judge for assault causing bodily harm in 1878. I was intrigued and started investigating her.
Like a lot of other immigrant women in Winnipeg during this period she earned money working as a domestic. She found herself a well-paid job working for a woman named Alice Hamilton. This was also around the time that Winnipeg’s red-light district was booming. Madams would sometimes hire girls for laundry or cleaning work in their brothels (sometimes without telling them what the houses were for) and then would push them into sex work through bribery or the withholding of wages. Sometimes this worked, but when Alice Hamilton tried to withhold wages from this young Icelandic woman, she grabbed a broom and beat the tar out of the madam and marched off to the police station.
I was amazed at her ferocity, particularly since during this period of time there was so much silence and shame surrounding the sex trade and women working outside of the home generally. “Fallen” women often appeared as tragic victims, but this woman was firmly in charge of her own destiny in spite of incredible pressure. I admired that.
I went to the Winnipeg Police Archives to see if I could find a picture of her, but she was arrested before they started taking mug shots. That’s when I encountered the fabulous turn-of-the-century fashionista madams of Winnipeg, including 22-year old Edna Floyd. I thought she deserved a place in Canadian history for her outfit alone. She is so defiant and so magnificent in spite of being busted in the middle of the night. I was inspired by her defiant pose and amazing sense of style. Fashion can tell us about women’s personal identities. We fashion our public identities through clothing, hair and style, and historical women were no exception, even when they were staring down the lens of a police camera.
The women are from across Western Canada and were arrested for a variety of offenses between 1878 and 1916. These included theft, running a bawdy house, assault, aiding fugitives, and “making obscene images” (pornography). Their images all circulated through the Winnipeg Police Department at some point either because they were known in Winnipeg or because other police departments were circulating their images around Canada. Everyone got a pseudonym as part of the condition of my using images from the archive. Otherwise, all of the research on each woman in the show is real. I tried to make their new names reflect the originals as closely as possible. The mug shots are also reproduced in large-scale form but I asked Mandy Malazdrewich, a specialist in historical photographs and photographic processes, to help me reframe the edges of each photograph to make it look like an oval portrait instead of a square mug shot.
It was amazing how simple framing and enlarging can really alter the meaning of an image!
What kinds of artifacts do you use to tell their story?
I specialize in the history of objects and I wanted to make these women’s lives really three-dimensional and accessible. I think people connect more to the past when there is something tangible in front of them.
There were a lot of objects that helped me do that. The Manitoba Museum lent me several amazing dresses and coats that represent each woman’s personal style as well as their class background. Another local institution, Dalnavert, loaned the show several beautiful, old Persian rugs to help convey a sense of warmth, richness and interior wealth that I wanted to surround each woman. The Strathclair Museum, where my 92-year old Amma (Grandmother) has been working as a volunteer and curator for 30 years, loaned the gallery numerous working-class artifacts that have been carefully preserved by people in the community, including old patched bloomers and lace gloves and purses that belonged to peoples’ mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Some local women also offered me numerous irreplaceable pieces from their own personal collections that they wanted to be included in the show. I found that very touching.
I wanted to use the objects not just as historical props, but as messages about love and sentiment that disrupt the tradition of devaluing women on the margins. I think people often overlook the radical potential of family love, too often it is associated with conservative and nationalist ideas that are limited to “family values.” Yet, it has largely been the family members of missing and murdered women that are the most powerful voices of protest against entrenched racist and sexist violence in the Canadian West. Family ideas about value and national ideas about value are not inherently compatible. Fragile but enduring family heirlooms from this period helped represent the private emotional lives and connections of marginalized woman as well as the role of family love in resisting dehumanization and systemic violence.
Objects in the original mug shots also inspired the material landscape in the show. All of the women seemingly came from working class or poor backgrounds but had interesting relationships to material wealth. One of the women was a chambermaid known as “Lil’ Ava” who was arrested for harbouring bank robbers in an apartment off East Hastings in Vancouver in 1911. Her mug shot description says she had five gold teeth. I thought about what she was trying to say about herself in choosing to get gold dental work even though she was on the bottom of the rung of Vancouver’s economy. Her clothes, her defiant pose and the golden smile you don’t see in her mug shot offer important hints about how she saw herself, how she wanted others to see her and what she wanted from life.
Why do their story, or stories like theirs, ‘need’ to be tell, particularly when most of the history we know is… well.. “his” story?
I started the project by following the women in the images in front of me through archival records and they took me down a path that I didn’t quite imagine at first. Each dimension of the show taught me something new about the past.
The exhibit tries to upend the idea of the “pioneer” as an embodiment of law and order and wholesome values. Whether in parks, on TV, or in school projects, pioneers still appear as the most important figures in Canadian Western popular history. Yet, people so often forget that “pioneer times” and colonialism were the same thing. Moreover, “pioneers” were very complicated people and dominated the arrest records for most crimes in turn-of-the-century Western Canada. They also ran and patronized booming red-light districts across the West until around WWI.
It’s a fascinating history, but it also made me aware that I am living in a historical period in which marginalization and violence might look natural or inevitable, but isn’t. Currently in Manitoba, Aboriginal women make up between 80-90% of the prison population, but only around 15% of the outside population. This is a really huge shift from the way things were 100 years ago. I literally only saw one Aboriginal woman, a young Métis maid accused of theft, in the mug shot collection at the Winnipeg Police Museum. They very seldom appeared in front of the police cameras. So, in many respects, the criminalization of Aboriginal woman in the West is a relatively new development. It is part of our current historical period — one that has a recent beginning and one that will certainly have an end. I think that being aware of that history and the courage of women that live through it teaches us about the possibilities we can inherit when we value their remarkable lives.
One of the points you brought up in a previous conversation was the relationship between heritage and dehumanization, can you elaborate?
Absolutely. I grew up in Winnipeg where the disappearance and deaths of women and trans people on the margins (or those perceived to be on the margins) was often depicted as an unfortunate, but essentially normal, or “natural”, part of city life and history. Young,vibrant, beautiful women and trans people would disappear and be found dead but the larger public attitude was that this was somehow inevitable or a historical trend — almost traditional.
As I show in the exhibit, this is an illusion, especially when it comes to sex trade workers. Violence against sex trade workers and exploitation happened but dehumanization was absolutely not the norm in the earlier history of Winnipeg’s red-light districts. Madams were powerful and influential and, as historian Rhonda Hinther shows, the police protected red-light districts for most of the city’s history until WWI.
I started to think a lot about how illusions about the history of women on the margins and in the sex trade have contributed to a situation in which certain kinds of violence and murder are seen as normal (Agamben calls this the “state of exception”).
I was walking down East Hastings for the first time in February on my way to the Vancouver Police Museum. One of the women in my show, “Lil’ Ava,” was arrested in a bank robber hideout just off East Hastings. I was stunned to see that on this stretch of the street, “ground zero for missing and murdered women in Western Canada,” the largest, well-maintained monument to the loss of human life was devoted to WWI and WWII soldiers. Lil’ Ava’s hideout had seemingly become a parking lot and I passed a demolition site where the remains of another big building lay in a big heap.
I thought about how history and heritage campaigns try to tell us who to value and who to grieve. I looked at the neat maintenance on the soldiers’ monument and the powerful emotional statements carved into the stone that were meant to make you feel emotional like “all ye who pass by” and “is it nothing to you?” These parking lots and demolition sites were the opposite. They were anti-monuments had the opposite effect, the erasing of memory and the devaluing of certain histories. These gaps in our everyday historical landscape tell us what lives not to mourn and commemorate. Heritage campaigns shape what lives we value in the present.
Many pioneer women were, as the title indicates, ladies of the night – as some of the only women in towns full of men, how significant has their contribution been to the development of our cities? (eg. Lou Graham, a Madam who lived in Seattle, was so wealthy that some tours tout her as the second largest donor EVER to the city, just after Bill Gates. She basically funded the entire school system!).
Wow. I just love that. Yes, in terms of the “pioneer ladies” reference, it is important to remember that non-Indigenous women, often Americans, totally dominated the early history of Manitoba’s sex trade. I think that fact really unsettles the wholesome image of the pioneer lady and uncovers the complex and problematic nature of this often mythologized figure. In terms of their role in development and communities, I have seen similar references in the work of other historians that I was reading in preparation for the show.
Becki Ross writes about Vancouver exotic dancers holding Christmas charity events to raise money for toys for poor children. They called it “Tits for Tots.” Also, Rhonda Hinther has done a lot of work on the Point Douglas red-light district in Winnipeg and just co-wrote a new documentary called “The Oldest Profession in Winnipeg.” She argues that when the Winnipeg Police decided to establish a new red-light district in 1909 they decided to involve real estate agents who then marked up the prices on all of the houses. A lot of madams had very powerful connections and money that most women couldn’t even dream of, it was literally the most lucrative job a woman could get in those days, but it involved a lot of both risks and guts. I think their histories can teach us all so much, regardless of our backgrounds.
Because the show had quite a bit of sex trade history in it, I decided that it was important to involve experiential women, those who had an up close understanding of that economy. I learned so much from one woman in particular who is an outstanding advocate in the city. Having her and other experiential women come in and say that they liked the show felt like the best feedback in the world. It was so important for me as an academic historian and curator to make my research accessible to people that would find the lives of the women in the show familiar and meaningful.
Working in a gallery space was essential to making that happen for this project. In Winnipeg there are a series of streets that have women’s names and the longstanding rumour in the city is that these were the favourite working girls of city officials and planners. There is quite a bit of debate about this. I certainly don’t know the answer, but one of the streets is named “Lulu.” This was a popular name that working girls adopted at the end of the 1800s. I heard that women who are sex-trade involved now also know about this story and that it is still popular. The story really speaks to the wealth and influence that these working women once enjoyed as well as the empowering possibilities of history in the present. Most people are inclined to tell stories about history that helps them make sense of their present and I liked hearing that this story was still circulating throughout the city. I wanted to create an accompanying landscape that they would also enjoy and find relevant.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This is a travelling show and the next stop is Edmonton at the Human Ecology Gallery at the University of Alberta (opening September 13, 2012!) I am working on other venues across Canada and the show will differ slightly in each incarnation.
I will always be drawing from different local collections for the show’s wardrobe and commemorative landscape. Wherever it goes I want people to see their own community- and their own regional ancestors reflected in the show in dresses and artifacts. U of A has an amazing textile collection and I am really looking forward to using parts of it in the next show. Plans are in the works to feature an infamous Edmonton madam there: Big Nellie Webb. Big Nellie was acquitted of shooting a Mountie in the leg in 1888. James Grey writes about the case extensively in his well-known book Red Lights on the Prairies. The mountie was drunk and tried to force his way into her “house of ill-fame” after she locked the door. She refused to let him enter and when he kicked in the door she shot him in the leg. It caused a huge scandal in the North West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) and Big Nellie was found not guilty of wounding with intent to kill and released. I think this really illustrates the ultimately better standing of women in the sex trade with law enforcement in those days. As the Chief of Police in Lethbridge in 1903 argued: “a skirt is a skirt and must be respected as such”.