Being Feminist in the Academy

Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler, and Francine Descarries, eds., Minds of Our Own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women’s Studies in Canada and Québec, 1966-76 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008).

Feminism appears to be everywhere these days, in newspaper headlines, scrawled in bathroom stalls, uniting activists and impassioning bloggers.It is often used tritely, a negative catch word for political women, a lead in to proclamations of its waning value, but it is also used to celebrate women and their accomplishments, to press for change and call for action. It is in this spirit that Minds of Our Own has been written. To document the personal and professional stories of the teachers, students, and activists who made the study of women possible at universities when powerful cultural ideals condoned gender inequality under the law, prevented women from holding bank accounts and accessing legal abortions or birth control, and allowed husbands to rape their wives.2 More than forty-years later, the changes in Canadian society are breathtaking. In important ways not yet covered in the historical scholarship, Minds of Our Own teaches us about the battles fought and won to bring these transformations to Canada and Québec.3 At the same time, this collection cautions us, in the words of Ursula Franklin, to remain committed to “progress by women, through women for all.”4 Citing the rise of corporate power, environmental degradation, violence against women, and pay inequity, the editors argue the challenge of inequality in our world remains substantial.5 In achieving these things, Minds of Our Own refocuses us on an important political conversation and approach to change.

Soon after I began the first-person essays that are at the core of Minds of Our Own, it was clear to me that much has changed for female graduate students and academics since the late 1960s. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto in 1999, unlike Meg Luxton in 1969, no one questioned my suitability for graduate school. The University of Toronto rejected Luxton’s first application because no woman “could be serious about a career.”6 I was also encouraged to pursue my interest in Canadian women’s history, while in 1974 Vanaja Dhruvarajan was told she “could study families but not [Hindu] women because the latter were not considered a legitimate research topic.”7 In an equally important sense, my professors, many of whom were women, did not have to struggle to create or offer courses on the history of women and gender. While nearly thirty-years earlier in the same department, Jill Ker Conway and Natalie Zemon Davis had to design their now famous course Society and the Sexes with “no model to follow, no pre-existing syllabus” and limited sources “in the face of skeptics who said they did not exist.”8 To complicate matters there were almost no women’s organizations to turn to for support and no women’s bookstores to visit for course material.9 When I transitioned from graduate student to faculty member at Nipissing University I was equally unfettered, from the outset I developed courses that reflected my commitment to the history of women and gender. Whether my students liked it or not, and some clearly did not, I was in a position to change their understanding of the past, and familiarize them with the history of sexism in our country. In documenting the history of early pioneers in feminist scholarship, all of whom have claims to “first” programs, courses, positions, and fields of study, Minds of Our Own helps make these transformations clear.10

Starting with the founding of the Committee for Equality of Women in Canada in 1966 and ending with the International Year of Women in 1975, when public awareness and a decade of scholarship had changed what was possible in the classroom and in research, Minds of Our Own uses forty first-person accounts, as well as substantial contextual sections, to document the history of women’s studies and feminist scholarship in Canada and Québec. The essays are organized according to the age of the writer, which provides a clear sense of continuity and change over time in perspective and experience. Born in 1919 and studying in the 1940s, Clara Thomas conveys little sense of resentment when she explains that her close male friend Brandy lobbied aggressively and successfully against her admittance to graduate school, accusing her of competing with her husband.11 In contrast, by 1970 Margrit Eichler, who was then a new faculty member at the University of Waterloo, complained to the president for addressing her as “Mrs. My-then-husband’s-first-and-last-name” and received an apology.12 Eichler had the language of feminism available to her in 1970, while thirty-years earlier Thomas did not. Though both scholars worked in universities that were “patriarchal and sexist, as well as racist, heterosexist and abelist,” this meant different things to them and to others whose experiences are covered here.13

Minds of Our Own also challenges well-worn characterizations of second wave feminists as blind to difference and naive in their celebration of universal sisterhood. In the spirit of Clare Hemmings, who argues against simplistic understandings of the development of Western feminist thought, the authors call for a more complex telling of their stories.14 They embrace this most clearly by documenting differences between feminists in Québec and the rest of Canada along linguistic and cultural lines. In Québec, the Quiet Revolution and the 1970 October Crisis, which “inflamed nationalist sentiments and distrust of government,” informed women’s calls for independence.15 Unlike their Anglophone counterparts, Québec feminists resisted establishing separate women’s studies departments. To do so, they thought, risked “ghettoizing the new knowledge about women by isolating it from the different disciplines.”16Scholarship and political movements in France were also highly influential in Québec. After the May 1968 protests, for instance, Québec feminists “rediscovered, at the same time as French women, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex”.17 They also partnered across national borders with French feminists, which lead to the creation of the first shelters for battered women in the country.

Though the book’s editors, Francophone and Anglophone, recognize that they sometimes failed to see the special discrimination faced by “Aboriginal women, women of colour, lesbians, and immigrant women,” they insist that those active in the academy recognized the importance of diversity.18 When Wendy Robbins was invited to teach the University of Guelph’s first course on women in literature she “type[d] up handouts on Native Canadian material since no published collections existed.”19 Jill Vickers’ work at the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women made her aware of different women’s experiences and explained why Native women such as Mary Two-Ax Early “rejected feminism.”20 Despite these efforts, it is undeniable that non-white women, their histories and experiences, were marginalized in these years. This is made clear through the story of Vanaja Dhruvarajan whose academic qualifications from India were constantly questioned by the white majority around her. As for the activist women to whom she sometimes turned, Dhruvarajan explains that she felt her difference acutely because of her history, the colour of her skin, and her culture. This limited her willingness to effectively engage with the feminist movement.21 As Dhruvarajan explains in her edited collection with Jill Vickers, there was “little systematic exploration of other differences among women.” Instead, there was an “emphasis on sisterhood” that resulted in a form of “stand-alone feminism, in which issues of gender fairness predominated.”22 Western feminist thought was not and is not universally application to all oppressions. Patricia Monture-Angus argues more forcefully, “The history of ‘White’ women’s organization is not always a history that should be recounted with pride in the respect demonstrated for racial and cultural diversity.”23Minds of Our Own serves as a reminder that we cannot, indeed should not, understand the motivations and experiences of feminists in a generalized manner. Dhruvarajan’s experiences, in particular, highlight the ongoing power of racial inequality. As a recent FEDCAN blog, Equity Matters, makes clear “women of colour remain severely unrepresented in the Canadian academy,” well below their numbers in Ph.D. programs. Moreover, those who do have jobs in universities “consistently report that they experience consistent, debilitating, everyday racialization that places them at a disadvantage in comparison to their white peers, male and female.”24

Sexism also lingers inside the university. In my most recent student evaluations for the first-year survey course in Canadian History, I received a critique that has become all too familiar to me as a university educator, “Dr Srigley’s strongly feminist views (or what appeared to be feminist views) seeped into lecture too often, frustrating me as well as other classmates.” As I spend relatively little time on the history of feminism, this critique requires some reflection. What exactly is s/he rejecting? Does s/he dislike one of the course objectives, which is to raise historical awareness of and encourage students to ask questions about issues of equality and power in Canada’s past? As I have never received complaints about my lectures on the working class, Joe Beef is always a hit, Chinese railway workers and head taxes, or sexual containment during the Cold War, such a broad dismissal seems unlikely. It is more plausible that they dislike my lectures on Amelia as well as James Douglas, as well as my attention to the history of sexism. Certainly drawing the history of women and gender into course material is for me a consciously feminist act. I want to complicate the white male Euro-North American lens through which the vast majority of my students understand and validate knowledge of the past; however, I must confess my survey course is not revolutionary. Only 20% of the assigned readings and 13% of the lectures deal exclusively with women’s and gender history. Nonetheless, this student and others resist amendments to the historical narrative that draw the history of women and the power relations they have experienced into scholarly focus. It is thanks to scholars in this collection, and many others, that I have the space and resources to include the history of women and gender in my courses, but clearly the battle for “legitimate” knowledge is far from over. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out so clearly, it takes much longer to change “long-standing custom” than it does to change laws.25

Outside the classroom, many female academics continue to face gender-specific barriers, particularly when it comes to parenthood and family. In Canada, a twelve month “maternity leave is now covered in the labour/employment standards legislation in every Canadian jurisdiction, and in most collective agreements.”26 Even if they do not agree with these provisions, most people are aware that it is illegal to discriminate based on gender. This has changed the culture of universities in important ways, silencing those on hiring committees who used to feel free to ask women if they planned to have children. At the same time, informal and formal factors still discriminate against female faculty, particularly those in contract and untenured positions. Perhaps most importantly, the tenure-track system continues to be “predicated on an outdated model of male faculty members without significant family responsibilities.”27 As a consequence of this, many women feel compelled to delay pregnancy until they receive tenure and, like Deborah Gorham in the 1970s, struggle “to balance marriage, motherhood, and a career.”28 They are very aware that they will not be able to publish enough to compete in a system where the “ideal academic is defined as someone who takes no time off for childrearing.”29 Statistics bear out these concerns, revealing that women who have a child within five years of their Ph.D. are “significantly less likely to achieve tenure than men.”30 When I was in graduate school, one of my professors, a well-known women’s historian who had fought many battles for her position, told me I would need to choose, “a baby or a book.”  I was doggedly committed to both, but delayed pregnancy until I secured a job, which I was lucky to find. Three years later I found myself in the midst of my maternity leave, untenured and with significant mother-guilt, working long hours typing with one hand as I nursed, rocked, and played with my daughter using the other. It was not until my time at home was almost up that I realized what had happened. I had worked through my maternity leave. For many faculty inadequate recognition of the value of families, “family friendly policies and family care support systems” also present challenges. At a recent dinner party, I was told that pregnancy was my choice.31 For many women in Canada and elsewhere in the world, no thanks to our government’s recent decision to withdraw foreign aid for abortions, childbearing is not a choice. I am thankful to have had the choice, but this does not mean that I should make less money, be overlooked for Chair of the Department, or have sabbatical, tenure or promotion delayed because I have family responsibilities.

As a university educator, I am constantly reminded of the myriad reasons feminist history and volumes such as Minds of Our Own are important. As a tenured academic of British ancestry, I am in a position of power; I produce and share knowledge in lectures and writing. As a woman academic tagged as a feminist, I know I am more easily dismissed by student and colleague alike, my authority eroded, my sexuality and intellect open to question. I also know that my students, both female and male, struggle with alienation and disenfranchisement because of difference. They labour, often in life and death situations, with the dissonance created by their self image and society’s image of them, particularly when it comes to the female body; the “feminine mystique” Betty Friedan highlighted in 1963 continues to fuel our ongoing obsession with women’s bodies.32 Equally powerful for me as I stand at my lectern and look out a classroom filled with more women than men, is my consciousness that greater numbers of women in university has not resulted in pay equity or substantive changes to patterns of violence against women. The majority of my female students, particularly if the are indigenous women, will experience violence in their lives.33 At the end of Minds of Our Own, I am left with a desire for more conversations. What do these early pioneers think about the present “state of affairs”?34 How do we speak and act across borders in all their incarnations, generational, national, racial, ideological, and physical, to name only a few?  What is the future role of feminism “in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the symbolic order and its material effects?”35 Certainly more collections like Minds of Our Own will help inspire conversation about these issues.  

Katrina Srigley is associate professor of history at Nipissing University. 


1 See for example: Nicole Baute, “feminism up close and personal,” Toronto Star 5 June 2010, L1; Lisa Marie Hogeland, “Fear of Feminism: why young women get the willies,” http://www.rapereliefshelter.bc.ca/volunteer/fearoffem.html last accessed 30 June 2010; Marsha Lederman, “Foul Times for Lilith Fair,” Globe and Mail 25 June 2010; Karen von Hahn, “It’s official: feminism is out of style,” Globe and Mail 26 January 2008;  Katie Couric talks to Gloria Steinem and Jehmu Greene, http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6607853n, last accessed 30 June 2010; Blog: Bitch Ph.D., http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/2010/04/my-classes-must-be-over-becuase-this.html last accessed 30 June 2010; The Walrus Blog, http://www.walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2010/01/31/to-the-national-posts-editorial-board/, last accessed 30 June 2010. 

2 Micheline Dumont, “Doing Feminist Studies Without Knowing It,” in Minds of Our Own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women’s Studies in Canada and Québec, 1966-1976, eds. Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler, and Francine Descarries (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008), 106; Wendy Robbins, Meg Luxton, Margrit Eichler, and Francine Descarries, eds., Minds of Our Own: Inventing Feminist Scholarship and Women’s Studies in Canada and Québec, 1966-1976 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008), 320-321.

3 See also: bell hooks, Feminism is for everybody: Passionate Politics (London: Pluto Press, 2000). 

4 Robbins, et. al., 339.  

5 Robbins, et. al., 336. 

6 Meg Luxton, “Women’s Studies: Oppression and Liberation in the University,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 269.

7 Vanaja Dhruvarajan, “A Lifetime of Struggles to Belong,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 149.

8 Jill Ker Conway and Natalie Zemon Davis, “Feminism and a Scholarly Friendship,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 82, 83. 

9 Robbins, et. al., 1. 

10 Robbins, et. al., 1. 

11 Clara Thomas, “Creating a Tradition of Canadian Women Writers and Feminist Literary Criticism,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 45.

12 Margrit Eichler, “To Challenge the World,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 197. 

13 Robbins, et. al., 319. 

14 Clare Hemmings, “Telling Feminist Stories,” Feminist Theory 6, 2(2005), 115-139. 

15 Nadia Fahmy-Eid, “Once Upon a Time There Was the Feminist Movement…and Then There Was Feminist Studies,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 156. 

16 Fahmy-Eid, 159. 

17 Fahmy-Eid, 156. 

18 Robbins, et. al., 23; 22-23; 328-329.

19 Wendy Robbins, “To Ring True and Stand for Something,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 293. 

20 Jill Vickers, “Surviving Political Science…and Loving It,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 218, 220. 

21 Vanaja Dhruvarajan, “A Lifetime of Struggles to Belong,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al., 151. 

22 Vanaja Dhruvarajan and Jill Vickers, Gender, race, and nation: A global perspective (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 5. 

23 Patricia Monture-Angus, Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 1995), 176. 

24 Audrey Kobayashi, “Equity and women of colour: Things are slow to change in the academy, Equity Matters, FEDCAN blog, http://blog.fedcan.ca/2010/03/10/equity-and-women-of-colour-things-are-slow-to-change-in-the-academy/, last accessed June 8, 2010. 

25 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1971), xxiv. 

26  http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/lp/spila/wlb/wfp/11Maternity_Leave.shtml#51, last accessed 15 June 2010. 

27 Annette Kolodny, “Women’s Studies and the Trajectory of Women in Academe,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al.,174. On gender equity see also: Sandra Acker, “Gender Equity and the Tensions of Tenure,” Academic Matters (Oct/Nov 2009): 24-27; David Rayside, “The Queer Agenda on Campus: Invisible? Stalled? Incomplete?” Academic Matters (May 2010): 19-23. 

28 Deborah Gorham, “Transforming the Academy and the World,” in Minds of Our Own, eds. Robbins, et. al.,122.

29 Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008), xx.

30 Ibid. 

31 Gerald Caplan, “The sad truth about Harper and maternal health,” Globe and Mail 20 March, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-sad-truth-about-harper-and-maternal-health/article1513829/actions.jsp, last accessed April 26, 2010. 

32 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1963), 7. See also: Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971); Naomi Wolf, They Beauty Myth (Toronto: Random House, 1990). 

33 More than fifty percent of Canadian women will experience violence in their lives. Equally troubling are statistics which show us that a woman or child is being assaulted every minute of every day in Canada. http://www.cdnwomen.org/EN/section05/3_5_1_1-violence_facts.html last accessed 15 June 2010. Aboriginal women who are 15 years of age or older are three and a half times more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginal women. Native Women’s Association of Canada, What Their Stories Tell Us. Research Findings from the Sisters in Spirit Initiative, 2010, 4. 

34 Beauvoir, xxviii. 

35 Susan Friedman, Mappings: feminism and the cultural geography of encounter (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), 8.