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Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Myers, Tamara. Caught: Montreal’s Modern Girls and the Law, 1869–1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Pp. 345. Illustrations, photographs, charts

  • Jane Nicholas

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  • Jane Nicholas
    Lakehead University

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Tamara Myers’ Caught is a complex and fascinating study of female juvenile delinquency in Montreal. Myers explores how “les jeunes filles modernes were integral to the development of Quebec’s juvenile justice system” (4). In doing so, Myers analyzes both the system and the women ‘caught’ in it, while highlighting Montreal’s ethnic and religious diversity. Drawing on an impressive amount of research, anchored by over one thousand case files on female juvenile delinquents, Myers has produced a compelling and richly textured study of delinquency in relation to the particularities of Montreal.

The book focuses on three interrelated themes informing the discursive construction and lived experiences of young, female delinquents, which are taken up to varying degrees in seven chapters. First is the legal structure and apparatus that constructed and attempted to define and regulate juvenile delinquency from 1869 to 1945. Throughout this period Myers demonstrates that everything from what brought girls in front of the court to their ‘treatment’ was informed by particular discourses of femininity and often shaped by ideas of sexuality. Myers begins the study with the 1869 Acts respecting Industrial and Reformatory Schools, which were part of the reformatory impulse concerned with neglected children and intimately connected with the Catholic religious orders and notions of nation-building influenced by the Catholic hierarchy. Subsequent provincial government policy produced the Montreal Juvenile Delinquents’ Court (MJDC) in 1912, which had sole responsibility for juvenile cases until another court was established in Quebec City in 1940. While focused on child-saving during the early decades of the twentieth century, Myers demonstrates that the court was deeply gendered and maternalistic in its response to delinquency, relying on various court prescribed ‘surrogate mothers’ who worked as female probation officers or who worked in the Catholic Soeurs du Bon Pasteur reform school or the Protestant Girls’ Cottage Industrial School. During the interwar years, however, the court moved to an increasingly professional model helped along by female Jewish probation officers who rejected the maternalist focus. The study ends with girls’ violent revolts in Montreal’s two reformatories in 1945 and 1946.

Myers is keenly aware of the relationship between les jeunes filles modernes and the city of Montreal in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, which is the period of focus for most of the study. The second theme is the emergence of and reaction to modern girls in Montreal, who like modern girls around the world, were born of the urban, industrial landscape and marked out significant generational differences in regard to public presence and private behaviour. Familial strife over daughters’ roles and expectations in a changing urban context was an important component in the delinquency cases. Young, working class women’s purported susceptibility to the urban environment and its commercial amusements increasingly informed discourses of female delinquency, and working class girls made up the majority of cases in the juvenile court. For the delinquent girls in Myers’ study, it was often their experiences with low-paying work in the city (with its accompanying opportunity for cheap amusements) that brought girls increasingly out from the watchful eyes of traditional authorities and resulted in clashes with parents or guardians and eventually the juvenile court. Notions of female delinquency were also caught up in wider social and cultural anxieties related to changes in femininity and visibility as well as issues related to the maintenance of the French-Canadian family and nation. Young women, who perhaps fit too well with urban modernity, became fodder for critics who turned the female delinquent into a “social problem and metaphor.” (59) Myers argues that the girls’ age, gender, and familial unruliness, combined with their independence as both workers and consumers, was often understood in sexual terms by a cast of medical and legal authorities. Unchaperoned on city streets, girls engaged in a host of behaviours that parents, guardians and other adults disapproved of and frequently labelled immoral. As a result, the body and sexuality also played key roles in understanding both female delinquency and girls’ individual cases. In addition to the multifaceted relationship between modern girls and the city that brought ‘delinquents’ to the attention of the court, Myers also discusses other issues of interest to urban historians including the geography and architecture of domesticity in two Montreal reformatories.

Lastly, Myers teases out some of the experiences of girls labelled delinquents and manages to illuminate some aspects of their lives, despite the methodological limitations of reading case files. These stories are often heartbreaking and, while the girls themselves remain elusive historical characters, Myers’ sensitivity to reading these case files for the possibility of recovering aspects of their experience adds an important dimension to the book. In chapter 6, for example, Myers investigates the MJDC’s, female probation officers’, and medical experts’ readings of the sexual histories of ‘sex delinquents,’ and delineates moments of agency where girls advocated for themselves in a system that sometimes saw them paradoxically as both defenceless and the problem. In regard to the sexual histories, Myers finds that the stories varied from romance narratives, to tales of seduction, to horror stories of rape and incest, but that in telling their histories, the girls sometimes found ways to defend and explain their ‘delinquent’ behaviour. As Myers argues however, class and gender structures as well as the court’s desire to uphold patriarchal familial control meant that girls’ often precarious family position was downplayed in favour of punishing “errant female sexuality” (202).

This is an excellent book. Myers has managed to tell an immensely complex tale in an engaging way. For this reason and others, the book will appeal to urban historians in the Canadian field and beyond as well as to cultural, social, and women’s historians.