Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 246-247


Copyright 2009 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska- Lincoln


Lindsey McMaster provides a lively account of how the working girl was "imagined, represented, and constructed as a figure within the cultural narratives of Canada, the West, and the empire" during the period of rapid economic growth and profound social transformation from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. She examines a range of different types of textsnewspaper reports, reform and social-purity discourse, official reports on labor, women's travel accounts of Canada, and Canadian literature and poetry-for common themes and tropes. Her goal is to see how social narratives of the working girl in the West, that vast imaginary from the Great Plains to the West Coast, took hold. Her claim is that the working girl in the West was the repository of a range of social anxieties about the pace and effects of change. She deftly shows how industrialization and urbanization combined with ideologies of racial and moral purity to create a terrain over which young working women challenged their traditional gender roles.

Working Girls in the West is divided into five chapters framed by a short introduction and a short conclusion. The introduction sets out the scope of the book and provides a backdrop of demographics and labor market statistics. McMaster is specifically interested in "stories that featured the working girl and made sense of her role through narrative elements like plot, dramatic conflict, romance and moral endings." She focuses on Vancouver, and each chapter is devoted to a specific narrative. The first explores the ways in which white women were represented as desirable civilizing agents in the colonial West. She places bride ships and domestic service in the larger context of industrialism and urbanization in order to illustrate the anxieties induced by working girls' single status.