Grad profile: Connecting past, present and policy through women's history

Holly Dickinson, Arts and Social Sciences

- October 15, 2021

Holly Dickinson. (Danny Abriel photos)
Holly Dickinson. (Danny Abriel photos)

This article is part of a series focusing on fall grads of the Dalhousie Class of 2021. Visit our Class of 2021 virtual space to share in the excitement with our newest graduates.

One of the most compelling aspects of studying women’s history for Holly Dickinson has been its power in helping her decipher the present.

Indeed, it was during a two-year stint working in digital media for a Toronto-based public policy platform that she was exposed to experiences and discussions that made her increasingly aware of gendered disparities within Canadian systems.

Increasingly intrigued by how things got this way, Holly decided to dive back into academia at Dal — spurred on by a love of research and writing as well as encouragement from a mentor she'd known since her days as an art history undergraduate student at Queen’s University.

“I knew I cared deeply about women, women’s rights, the birth experience, holistic medicine, and, ultimately, wanted to know more about the historical events that influence my own experience in the world,” says Holly, who graduated this fall from the master’s program in history at Dal and has just entered the PhD program.

Holly became particularly interested in researching, supporting, and advocating for women in the health-care system, adding that her interest in this field was sparked by her own experiences navigating reproductive healthcare.

“Self-advocacy is hard, especially within a medical system rooted in power dynamics,” she says. “I know too many women, both through historical research and my personal network, who have felt invalidated and suppressed in medical settings.”

Delving into domestic medicine

Holly took that passion and funneled it into her MA thesis, which explored domestic medicine in Nova Scotia (1750-1850) through The Manuscript Notebook of Sarah Creighton Wilkins (1811-1833) – a text that is housed at the Nova Scotia Public Archives.

Holly’s research zeroed in on Creighton, the wife of a judge and daughter of wealthy Loyalists, who compiled 100 recipes in the early 19th century, 62 of which were medical remedies that suggest treatment for a variety of common and curious ailments and demonstrate the role of female healers when modern medical practices emerged as the dominant form of healthcare.

“Although the remedies fluctuated in length, complexity, and peculiarity, they all shed light on Nova Scotian social medical history and the gendered and class implication of settler women in Nova Scotia,” explains Holly. “My intention was to consider how the collection’s materiality and content — including illnesses addressed and ingredients used — recoups a history of British settler women’s relationship with health and medicine through home practices, whether rooted in British tradition or reflecting the period’s evolving gender perceptions and expectations.”

Holly’s PhD research will expand on her MA research, but with a shifted focus investigating the history of reproductive health and the birth experience through material and visual culture in Atlantic Canada.

She hopes her research, which highlights the history of the importance of female healers in Western medicine — a history, she says, has long favoured patriarchal ideologies that idealize a reliance on institutionalization and pharmacology — will help people better understand the impact that those attitudes and actions continue to have on today’s healthcare system.

“For example, Midwifery is undervalued and underfunded in Nova Scotia — and Canada at large — which is by no means a new issue,” explains Holly. “While I know a historian can’t single-handedly strengthen Atlantic Canada’s health systems, I do think understanding how and why our systems are the way they are is a piece of the puzzle . . . It is my hope that uncovering marginalized health histories can lead to more intersectional and effective health policy in the future.”

Reconnecting with the past in another way, too

While working her way through Queen’s, Holly, originally from Ontario, met Lisa Binkley, who is now an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s Department of History. Dr. Binkley was working as a research supervisor at Queen’s while Holly was a research fellow – but a mentorship and friendship followed soon after.

“We connected over shared life philosophies, senses of humour, and, of course, a love of historical research,” says Holly.

Dr. Binkley helped lead Holly back to academia and to Halifax in 2019 to pursue a MA in History at Dalhousie and ended up serving as her MA supervisor, continuing to do so now during her PhD. 

“Holly's interdisciplinary background, combined with her interest in women's health, contribute to this new direction in research for her PhD project,” says Dr. Binkley. “She's an exceptional student, and I'm happy to see her undertake a topic she is passionate about and one that combines each of her disciplinary experiences.”

Holly’s drive to support women’s health goes far beyond her research. She is the President of the Women’s Health Interest Group (WHIG). Founded in 2019 by Health Promotion graduate students, Emma Cameron and Kathryn Stone, the mission of this Dalhousie society is to share research and knowledge pertaining to women's health and wellness and to promote multidisciplinary researchers and knowledge holders.

Additionally, Holly has been a practicing birth doula since spring 2021, volunteering with the Chebucto Family Centre’s Volunteer Doula Program.

“I wholeheartedly believe that everyone who wants a doula should have access to one,” says Holly.

“One of my goals as a PhD student exploring the history of women’s health and wellness and the birth experience is to ground my academic research in community, and I think providing doula support is a meaningful way to do so.”


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus