Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Joy Parr 1949-2024 RIP, historian

I have a list of postable things I have yet to get done. But it's high time to note the death of the great historian Joy Parr, who died May 16 in Southhampton, Ontario, not far from her birthplace. 

There's a tribute to her by Jessica von Horssten on the Niche and Active History blogs (Sensing (everything) Changes: A Tribute to Joy Parr – NiCHE (  and an obit from Queen's University where she once taught. (Joy Parr, former Queen's History professor, passes away | Department of History, Queen's University (  from which I have borrowed this photo.

Her now some thirty-five years old book The Gender of Breadwinners, about mostly women knitting-factory workers in Paris, Ontario, and mostly male furniture-factory workers in Hanover, Ontario, first drew my attention to her work.  Indeed, I published a long profile of her in one of my first columns for The Beaver magazine (now Canada's History) in the early1990s.  It probably was my first discovery of how essential and revealing gender history can be.  And yes, as she tells me in the profile, men have gender too.

Excerpt from "Lives of Men and Women" (The Beaver, 1992)
Talking to the women of Paris -- including some who immigrated in the early years of the century and remained Penmans employees into the 1970s -- Parr learned how women's work in the factories changed life in Paris. More than elsewhere, women owned homes or boarded together in self-supporting groups. They might marry younger men and expect them to share the housework. They would leave the factory for a few years to raise children and expect Penmans to take them back when they chose to return. They were militant about their rights, but they had a hard time with outside unions with traditional ideas about women and work. In Paris, being a woman and a factory worker was always complicated -- but always possible. Paris showed the "women don’t work" rule never applied everywhere. It opened a way for Parr to explore the many curious ways in which ideas about what men and women "ought" to do have shaped work and home – and politics and labour strife, too.

In Hanover, the subject of the second half of Parr's book, wives worked at home and men built furniture in Daniel Knechtel’s factory. That seemed a more normal work situation, but when I told Joy Parr that I had wondered how she would apply her theme of gender, she laughed. "As if only women have gender!"
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