Institutionalized slavery, though extinguished by law from North America during the 19th Century, continued in more subtle forms as discrimination well into Rachel’s century. Custodial relationships that used to be evident between men and women throughout the last century also underwent change, at least in how people described the ways they treated their significant others at home and their colleagues at work. Both are examples of how differently authority may be exercised. During these same years public institutions and public services could hardly escape the changes in relationships: teachers toward pupils, doctors toward patients, clergy towards their congregants, the elected towards the electors. “We know best”, was once the assumed attitude of the care-takers and we believed their authority and altruism was beyond question. Altering these kinds of custodial relationships has taken time and caused discomfort—on both sides of the relationship, but more equitable ways of relating continue to occur.
The 20th Century was the century when Canadian women were officially declared to be “persons”. Rachel would have been nearly thirty years old when five Alberta women, the “Famous Five”, as they were dubbed, presented a case to the Supreme Court of Canada which in 1928 turned them down, stating that the word “person” found in the British North America Act did not include female persons. The determined five took their case to the British Privy Council, then able to over-turn Canada’s highest court. Part of their decision read, “Yes, women are persons…the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours…”6
At the turn of the century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was credited with the provocative statement, “God is dead.”7 Then half way through the century, a small book appeared, first in England, then in America, written by J. B. Phillips, a canon of the Anglican Church, who called his little gem, Your God Is Too Small.8 It signaled a changing awareness and from its introduction, his point was clear:
While…life has grown in a score of directions, and … mental directions have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries.… ideas of God have remained largely static.9
His readers may have been mostly Christians as though, somehow, God belonged only to them, but then people of differing faiths hardly spoke to one another much less among those from various branches within their own tradition. No one inquired if searchers of the holy might invest their lives in exploring the universe within as well as the universe beyond. The consequences of ending duality could have been just too strange and frightening in 1900 or 1950. J. B. Phillip’s title, at first a statement, could also be read as a perennial question. While 20th Century believers wrestled with theologies from the past they also wrestled with questions about the nature of authority; whether there was, in fact, a one right way for seekers to engage with the transcendent, and who could be considered fellow-pilgrims.
Over the decades of the 1900s, former allocations associated with race, gender, caste, age, occupation and faith each began taking on new configurations. It is too early to assess what will emerge from all this. And what of Rachel, nine and a-half decades into her life and into the century? It is at least accurate to say that over her lifetime she was able to exercise her authentic talents in the business of motivating her community to work together and support goals that served everyone.
And what might Rachel have said if some hapless historian had offered these labels about the currents of her century through which she swam? To changes in technology, she might have told you that before refrigerators there were ice boxes and the fresh block of ice still had bits of sawdust stuck to it. Like most, she appreciated all the aids that made life increasingly comfortable.
However, in analyzing and articulating her times and circumstances, her talents were more practical than historical. She met a day’s challenge like a good triage nurse; sorting what required immediate attention despite whatever larger currents were swirling around her. She could be counted on to get things done. If, in her old age, an interviewer were to press her about what she did to alleviate the grave social ills and calamities that occurred over her lifetime, she would have calmly replied, “I did what I could.”
1. Statistics Canada, CANSIM, table 075-001, www.statcan.gc.ca
2. Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd edition, Social Science Federation of Canada and Statistics Canada, 1983, A67-77.
3. Population of the 20 Largest U.S. Cities, 1900-2005, www.infoplease.com
4. Ancestry.com, New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, entry for D.O. Wickham, www.ancestry.com
5. History of Bass River 1765-1978, rev. ed., 1978, Bass River Senior Citizens Club, [Nova Scotia: s.n.], 1978, 66-73.
6. Susan Munroe, The Persons Case, A Milestone in the History of Canadian Women, About.com Canada Online, History, http://canadaonline.about.com
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Prologue, part 2. http://www.gutenberg.org/
8. J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, New York, N.Y.: Simon & Shuster, 2004.
9. Phillips, “Introduction,” 7.