I am pleased to welcome Debbie Marshall to Great War 100 Reads. I first met Debbie last summer at the Canadian Literature of World War One Conference. (Truth be told, I introduced myself after eavesdropping on a conversation about her blog on WW1 nursing sisters and sensing a kindred spirit on women’s history.) Her book, Give Your Other Vote to the Sister, was quickly added to my reading list. Debbie has kindly agreed to share some reflections about her work.
What was the biggest challenge in researching Give Your Other Vote to the Sister?
Debbie Marshall: Finding original archival materials. I was writing about Roberta MacAdams, one of the first women elected to a legislature anywhere in what was then the British Empire, but there were almost no records in either of the two major Alberta archives—the Glenbow and Provincial Archives of Alberta. Her family also had very few archival materials (although they did have her first speech in the legislature—that was wonderful). That meant I had to create my own collection. I went to the Public School Archives in the City of Edmonton and found loads of correspondence penned by Roberta during her years as a domestic science teacher. I contacted the descendants of her brothers and discovered more materials. The descendants of her sister also had photographs that I could use. I contacted Collections Canada and ordered her military records. The best find was a large cache of Great War correspondence by Roberta’s campaign manager, Beatrice Nasmyth. I also uncovered a pile of newspaper articles in which Roberta was quoted verbatim.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing the book?
DM: Before the war Roberta did not think of herself as a woman’s rights advocate; she came from a fairly conservative family. Yet she had already broken down some barriers by receiving a post-secondary education in domestic science and becoming a teacher. In many ways, her experience in the Great War radicalized her. She saw the devastation caused by the conflict and witnessed the impressive work that women did for the wounded. It made her believe that women not only deserved the vote, they could use it to shape society for the better. She really didn’t want to see Canada involved in war again and I think she hoped that women’s involvement in politics might change that.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
DM: A sense that we have heroines as well as heroes in this country. Women like Roberta have shaped our country for the better and we can continue to be inspired by her example. She wasn’t perfect, but she was committed, courageous, and in her own way, visionary. I hope that readers will be inspired to read more about the history of Canada’s involvement in the First World War (especially the role of women in the war).
What writers have inspired you the most, and why?
DM: Charlotte Gray brings the stories of influential Canadians to life in such compelling ways. I’m also a big fan of British biographer Hermione Lee and fiction writer Pat Barker—Lee for her thorough, intellectually challenging, in-depth biographies and Barker for her brilliant portrayals of the First World War.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
DM: What draws me to write about the First World War; what keeps me going when the research gets really tough…
Where will your next book take us?
DM: My next book focuses on three Canadian female journalists who covered the Great War…It’s just about finished and is being considered by a Canadian publisher. Keep your fingers crossed!
Thank you so much, Debbie, for taking the time to give us these insights, and for bringing Roberta MacAdams back to the public conscience. I’m looking forward to the next book, to meet other fascinating women in history.