Short Skirts and Water Cures

An intimate look at the unconventional life of a 19th-century trailblazer.

In the late 1960s, my friends and I decided to wear pants to our public high school. We were promptly sent home and ordered not to return unless we were wearing a skirt or a dress.

My friends and I believed we were gutsy girls in the vanguard, and a year later, the school reversed its policy. Growing up on the cusp of a women’s movement that opened many doors, I had no idea that women had been far more daring long before I was born.

The impulse to discover (and recover) our feminist foremothers has been driven by the realization—surprise, surprise—that women my age were not the trailblazers we supposed. We were not the leaders of the pack when it came to pursuing an unusual path, undertaking an unconventional career or daring to be different in the name of equality and women’s rights.

Women of courage have been so thoroughly erased from Canadian history that a movement has arisen in the past few decades to recognize the women who set the table for those who followed. Books on Canadian journalists and writers, such as Barbara Freeman’s Kit’s Kingdom: The Journalism of Kathleen Blake Coleman and Beyond Bylines: Media Workers and Women’s Rights in Canada, Janice Fiamengo’s The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada, Margery Lang’s Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada, 1880–1945, and Pádraig Ó Siadhail’s Katherine Hughes: A Life and a Journey have revived the life and work of women who made a mark more than a century ago, but were largely forgotten or ignored in the chronicles written by men of that era.

Joanne Findon now introduces us to another extraordinary Canadian woman in Seeking Our Eden: The Dreams and Migrations of Sarah Jameson Craig. A professor of English literature at Trent University, Findon uses unpublished diaries and a memoir written in the final years of her subject’s life to paint a poignant portrait of a woman born 175 years ago in rural New Brunswick who took risks to realize her convictions.

Few rural women at the bottom of the economic ladder could read and write well, but even as a teenager, Sarah Jameson read avidly, wrote poetry, documented her life obsessively and harboured literary aspirations. She dreamed big, rejected conventional medical remedies and refused to bend to society’s notion of proper attire for women, deeming restrictive corsets and floor-length skirts harmful and drawing strong disapproval by wearing, at age 17, the contested “reform” style that consisted of pants covered by a short dress.

Her clothes marked her as eccentric and controversial, Findon writes, but Sarah even created a wedding outfit in the reform style, with the support of her future husband, cousin Joel Bonney Craig, and she continued to wear the reform style every day, thus distancing herself even further from her neighbours. “I had counted the cost, and knew it would make me unpopular, an object of ridicule among our neighbors; and despised and scorned by others,” she wrote. Despite opposition, she held fast, deeming “that the way women dressed was unhealthful, uncomfortable, as well as inconvenient; their fettering, hampering, monstrous skirts gathering and holding damp and filth, and their tightly compressed waists, excluding the air from the lungs, being positively and constantly disease producing.”

An independent spirit even at age 14, Sarah briefly and spontaneously ran away from home, likely to seek fame and fortune as a writer. No doubt burdened by the daily domestic labour as the eldest girl among nine children, and keenly aware of the limited possibilities for a girl in her economic circumstances, Sarah set out on foot from her cabin in the New Brunswick bush to ostensibly attend a church prayer meeting, but somewhere along the line simply kept walking, intent on reaching St. Andrews. From there, Findon writes, she was likely planning to sail to Boston or New York, where her father and older brother often took temporary work in the shipyards and had friends and contacts. After travelling quite a distance, she entered a cavernous forest and did an abrupt about-face, suddenly “overwhelmed by a sense of the utter folly and madness of my attempt.”

Sarah tried to escape her conservative rural community in other ways as well. Findon explains in detail a utopian communal movement that stirred Sarah and Joel’s imagination, as the couple dreamed of creating a colony of like-minded individuals who shared their belief in reform-style dress and their intense interest in the healing properties of water. Their attraction to the so-called “water cure” stemmed from a knee injury Joel sustained as a youngster. As Findon describes it, Joel’s axe slipped while he was cutting down trees and opened a gash on his knee. One of the men working with him plugged the injury with a quid of tobacco from his mouth and tied the leg with a dirty handkerchief. The wound became infected, leaving Joel crippled for life.

The water cure shunned remedies laced with alcohol, then in use by medical authorities, in favour of hydropathy, defined as “a comprehensive approach to disease management that left no aspect of life unregulated.” The hydropathic method seems oddly prescient in some ways; it banned tobacco and embraced a vegetarian diet, pure drinking water, vigorous outdoor exercise and a hygienic system of combating illness by administering a series of baths.

Findon tells us that Sarah and Joel’s dream of establishing a utopian community had them corresponding with would-be members from all around the United States and Canada and even attempting to publish a small journal devoted to the movement. But their dream would eventually collapse, Findon writes, under the weight of the terrible poverty and personal misfortune. The couple had 14 children (four died as infants or toddlers) and Joel was never able to find steady work because of his injury. He died when Sarah was in her forties and their youngest child was just two years old. Nevertheless, for Sarah, the utopian dream never faded. Findon takes us on her epic journey after Joel’s death, moving her family to the United States in search of the colony she had envisioned all her adult life and, later, west to Saskatchewan, and finally to British Columbia, where Findon believes that Sarah finally found her Eden.

Sarah never did become the writer she hoped to be when she left home on a whim, as a young girl seeking fame. She continued to submit work for publication, but it was not until the last decade of her life that a poem published in the Christian Herald marked the first time she was paid for her writing. Nevertheless, she left a detailed personal account of her struggles that Findon rightly believes “gives voice to the normally unvoiced experience of other marginal women like her.”

Findon delivers a sweet surprise at the book’s conclusion, when she reveals a personal connection to her subject: she is Sarah’s great-­granddaughter. Findon’s own search of discovery (and recovery) takes her to southwestern New Brunswick attempting to find a tangible trace of “that rebellious girl who had launched herself from home on that winter day long ago.” Findon’s trip to seek any sign of Sarah’s existence stamps more vividly into our memory a courageous woman who truly challenged her time and circumstance.