In Defense of Presentism (Kind Of)

In class on Tuesday we got into a brief discussion of presentism and whether modern attitudes should influence who we memorialize today. Merriam Webster defines presentism as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.”

Now, most historians agree that we can’t judge a 16th century politician by our 21st century ethics, because that would be ridiculous, our ethics hadn’t been invented yet.

But what happens when it comes to memorializing someone in the present?

The example I used in class was the “Famous Five,” the first women to be honoured with statues on Parliament Hill. They were, for those of you who don’t know, the women who took the “Persons Case” to the supreme court to have (white) women legally declared as persons so that they could become senators. These five women were active in the fight for suffrage and after in the fight for legal personhood of women.

Yay, that’s great! Except that they were also for the most part huge racists and supporters of eugenics. Emily Murphy was terrified that the “black and yellow races” may soon overtake Canada, supported Chinese exclusionist policies, and in her book “The Black Candle,” she advocated for the exclusion of all persons of colour from the North American continent (p.110). Nellie McClung and Irene Parlby both strongly supported and encouraged the forced sterilization of disabled and mentally ill people. 

So, when we cast these women in bronze, or stone, or whatever material their statues may be made of, we are on one hand celebrating a victory for (white) women’s rights, the right to be seen as a legal person, but what else are we celebrating? I believe that if we are honouring these people today, they should be able to stand up to today’s standards of decency. It is one thing to look back on their writings as a time capsule to another time, but when we bring them into the present through our monuments, we should consider all aspects of a person.

There are a few arguments I have heard against this. First of all, who should we honour instead? The first person who came to my mind was Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female MP. One of my favourite quotes of hers is “The idea of people of British stock that they are superior is absurd.” (P. 96). She was a socialist and an advocate for worker’s rights. I’ve read three biographies on her and come across no racism, anti-semitism, or xenophobia. (If anyone has information on that I would love to hear it and reconsider my position on her!). Or what about Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister (and first female acting Prime Minister)? Again, she supported immigration and opposed racial biases in Canadian immigration policy.

The second argument I heard is “well, aren’t you holding women to a higher standard than men?” My response to that would be no, let’s tear down the statues of all the racist old men we’ve honoured already. Not kidding. Get John A. off Parliament Hill. We’d have to get rid of most of the Prime Ministerial statues, realistically, leaving maybe, I’m not sure… Diefenbaker and Pearson? (Wouldn’t that just have the two of them rolling in their graves!) But why should we be honouring people who supported the eradication of First Nations people?

The third argument is “Well, everyone was like that back in those days!” I bet you the mentally ill, disabled, immigrants, people of colour, and Jewish people back in the days of the Famous Five objected to their stances on immigration, race relations, eugenics, etc. The problem is that none of these people were given platforms on which to state their opinions. They were made voiceless in their time and have, for the large part, been lost to history. You can’t say everyone was racist in the 1930s without ignoring the people being impacted by racism. Were most if not all white Canadians racist in the 1930s? Absolutely, I wouldn’t argue with that at all. But what about Canadians who weren’t white? Were Aboriginal Canadians being racist against themselves? I recall a quote I saw a few months ago which I am unable to find now. Essentially it was a black person talking about the civil rights movement, saying something along the lines of “white people needed laws to learn we were human. We didn’t need that, we always knew we were human.” The problem isn’t that “everyone back then was racist,” it’s more that “everyone we’ve paid attention to from back then was racist.”

The fourth argument is “but aren’t you suppressing discussion by objecting to this memorial?” If the memorial was designed to spark discussion, if there was an acknowledgement of the flaws of these women anywhere near it, if it came with anything that even remotely touched upon their racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, etc, this would be a completely different discussion. And honestly, why not do that? Since they’re already up there and odds are good they’re not coming down anytime soon, why not put up a plaque acknowledging the wrongdoings of these women? Why not invite debate about whether or not the good of these women outweighs the bad? But you have to inform people of these flaws in order to get the discussion going.

Ultimately though, my real issue with honouring these women is who it means we are honouring today. We are honouring middle or upper middle class, fully abled, white, Christian women of an Anglo-Saxon background. Because those are the women the Famous Five fought for. How can we justify this monument to a Chinese-Canadian who knows Emily Murphy thought their parents or grandparents were trying to bring about the “downfall of the white race”? Or what about a person who was forcibly sterilized for eugenic purposes (and given that Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act wasn’t repealed until 1972, many people sterilized under that act are still alive today). What would we say to that person about this monument?

The Famous Five got their personhood by standing on the backs of those who they didn’t deem to be persons. They fought only for a specific group of women and actively profited off the oppression of others, and we as a society need to acknowledge that and come to terms with that and consider what uncritically honouring these women says about us.


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