The power of the pen

Literary historian Willow White studies how 18th-century women writers resisted colonialism and patriarchy

Anna Schmidt - 12 December 2022

Willow White photo.
Photo by John Ulan

Growing up, Willow White was encouraged by her parents to pursue a post-secondary education and study any subject she found interesting. She thought it would be sociology, but when a first-year English class opened up the world of literature, she changed course. White, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, is now a feminist literary historian and assistant professor at Augustana Campus. Her recent work explores how Indigenous women writing in English resisted patriarchy and colonialism.

How do you describe your work in one or two sentences?

I study the history of women writers in English literature and theatre. My work focuses on both English and Indigenous women writing during what’s called the “long 18th century” (about 1660 to 1830) in Britain and North America.

What did you want to be when you were in Grade 3?

In Grade 3, I loved walking in the bush with my dad. I wanted to be a forester — someone who manages forests, does ecological restoration and cares for protected areas. I still love the forests, even though working with them is not what I do for a living.

When did you know you wanted to study literature?

Growing up, I always loved to read and write. In the first year of my undergraduate degree at MacEwan University, I was a sociology major. But after reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and many more incredible authors in English 101, I realized I wanted to study literature. I changed my major and never looked back.

What’s one big problem you want to address or a goal you want to achieve?

Historically, women writers faced significant gender oppression under Western patriarchy. As a feminist literary historian, I am interested in the ways women navigated and resisted this oppression long before the concept of feminism was articulated. More recently, I am interested in how Indigenous women writers resisted both patriarchy and colonialism following contact with the British Empire.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

To pursue post-secondary education. I am a first-generation graduate. My parents did not have the support needed to attend university as young adults, but they fostered a love of learning in our home. They always encouraged me to pursue post-secondary education in whatever field interested me.

What’s your favourite thing so far about Augustana?

The students! Like many of my students, I grew up in rural communities on the Canadian Prairies and I see myself in many of them. I love helping my students learn, dream and thrive throughout their studies.

How do you see the Augustana community playing a role in your work?

Augustana is a warm and welcoming place. The vibrant student body and my wonderful colleagues create an environment that is intellectually stimulating and community oriented. It is an honour to be part of this community.

What’s the last show you binge-watched and loved?

I love television! I just watched Star Wars: Andor and thought it was a stunning reflection on totalitarianism, colonialism and resistance movements.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

This is a challenging question for me because I’ve read many spectacular books. I’m currently reading Guy Vanderhaeghe’s August into Winter, a mystery thriller set in Saskatchewan in 1939.

Where did you grow up and what do you love about your hometown?

I grew up in many towns and cities across the Prairies, but one of my favourite hometowns is Hinton, Alta., nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Childhood in Hinton meant hiking, skiing, swimming and being with nature each day.

If you had unlimited time and resources, what’s your dream project in your field?

I am a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta. Someday I would love to write a book about the history and cultural production of Scottish-Cree Métis (also known as Countryborn) girls, women, and matriarchs.

More About Willow White

I began teaching English Literature and Indigenous Studies at Augustana Campus in January 2022 after six years of living in Montreal and studying at McGill University. While Montreal will always have a special place in my heart, I am so grateful to have a job on the Métis homeland and Treaty 6 territory that allows me to be back in my community while teaching and researching in the fields that interest me most!