As students and faculty, women have been entering into postsecondary education institutions at growing rates for decades. However, women, trans folks, and gender-diverse students and faculty continue to face barriers and challenges at universities. How did we get here, and how can we learn from the past to improve conditions for the future?

On International Women’s Day in 2020, the OCUFA Equity and Social Justice Committee issued a statement warning that women, trans folks, and gender-diverse faculty continue to be underrepresented as full-time, tenure-stream faculty, and that this discrepancy is more pronounced for those marginalized by multiple aspects of their identities including Indigeneity, race, sexuality, and ability. In 2017, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Report on Women in Science and Engineering in Canada concluded that while progress has been made in the representation of women in the natural sciences and engineering in universities and in related careers, they are still underrepresented in many academic programs, particularly physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. Women have gained access to all institutions of higher education in Canada, with 40 per cent of young women aged 25 to 34 reporting having a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29 per cent of men as of 2016. Yet, systemic inequities persist. These inequities are rooted in the history of women’s admission into Canadian universities.

The right to become an undergraduate

In the nineteenth century, the right to become an undergraduate in Canada belonged to a small number of young men. The experience of schooling at all levels was determined by intersections of race, class, and gender, as well as differences in religion and region. At a time when most Canadians were unable to attend more than the first year or two of high school, access to higher education was severely limited, improving only gradually as the number of universities and degree options expanded in the years before World War II. In 1871-72, for example, the total enrolment in Canadian universities was 1,561 students, all men, of whom only 240 graduated: 112 received degrees in arts and science, 106 degrees in medicine, and 22 degrees in law. An analysis of students at Queen’s University between 1895 and 1900 by Chad Gaffield, Lynne Marks, and Susan Laskin reveals that 31 per cent of the students had fathers who were farmers, 16 per cent were working class, and the remainder were dispersed among middle-class occupations such as clergymen, merchants, doctors, manufacturers, and other professionals.

To gain membership in this closed scholarly community, women in Canada campaigned not just for higher education, but for admission to men’s universities. Unlike many campaigners in the United States and Britian, the primary goal of reformers in Canada was university coeducation, rather than the creation of separate women’s colleges. In the United States and Britain, the movement resulted in the establishment of many forms of postsecondary education provision: independent women’s colleges such as Vassar and Smith; women’s colleges affiliated with men’s universities, like Girton at Cambridge and Barnard at Columbia; and coeducational universities that admitted both men and women into the same classes, such as Nebraska and Colorado.

Unlike many campaigners in the United States and Britian, the primary goal of reformers in Canada was university coeducation, rather than the creation of separate women’s colleges.

In Canada, however, reformers believed that their only hope for truly equal education lay in women gaining admission to men’s universities, achieving access to the same classrooms, programs, and degrees. In sharp contrast to the American and British movements, Canadian reformers focused almost exclusively on coeducation. While they were justified in pursuing this goal, the unintended consequences of these developments remain today. Historically, even as women gained access to higher education, policies and institutional structures within universities have not always evolved to provide a more inclusive environment.

The effects of colonialism

Universities still reflect the patriarchal and colonial structures of the past, and scholars have argued that the demand for equal education for women has not fundamentally altered these structures. In their book Going Coed: Women’s Experiences in Formerly Men’s Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000, Susan L. Poulson and Leslie Miller-Bernal contend that although most of the remaining men’s institutions in the United States have become coeducational, they have admitted women without addressing issues of gender equity, requiring adaptation and acceptance of existing campus culture, and thereby maintaining the status quo. These conclusions were confirmed by a symposium on gender equality in higher education hosted by the Royal Irish Academy in 2018.

In a recent article, Pat O’Connor, Judith Harford, and Tanya Fitzgerald state that institutions across Ireland, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand remain male-dominated; designed by men for men, their structural and cultural features reflect, reinforce, and perpetuate patriarchal and, increasingly, managerialist forces. Canadian universities also perpetuate historically constructed barriers on the basis of race and Indigeneity. Sheila Cote-Meek argues that as Indigenous students and faculty enter academia in growing numbers, they often experience a hostile classroom environment charged with racism. In her work, including the book Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education, Cote-Meek has called for transformative pedagogy to increase the awareness of ongoing colonialism in Canadian universities.

While they protested their own exclusion from this world, women reformers themselves contributed to a larger cultural and political Canadian discourse that served to reinforce Anglo-Canadian colonialism. Canadian historians have analysed how femininity and race were fundamental in shifting perceptions of modernity and defining women’s emerging role in the public sphere. Racial theory became a decisive factor both to support, and to argue against, the admission of women into men’s universities.

While they protested their own exclusion from this world, women reformers themselves contributed to a larger cultural and political Canadian discourse that served to reinforce Anglo-Canadian colonialism.

As Social Darwinism infiltrated popular discourse, opponents of women’s admission to university explicitly charged university coeducation with undermining the reproductive fitness of white women and the integrity of the Victorian family. In response, women’s education campaigners increasingly exploited existing racist ideas to promote what they regarded as the specific rights of white women to higher education and professional work, above those of racialized and Indigenous men and women. During the most contentious public debates of the 1880s, women’s rights advocates seized on Lamarckian theory to transform the goal of equal education into an imperative for the advancement of future generations; if women could pass along any acquired intellectual capacity to their children, then the education of Anglo-Canadian women was not simply a privilege, but essential to the work of nation-building.

Separate or equal?

The movement for women’s higher education was divided by a tension between the demand for equal standards, and the argument that women’s distinct needs could best be met by separate models of university provision. Reformers from the second camp tended to assume that higher education for women was inherently good, that it did not require the same intellectual rigour as men’s education, and that it should prepare women to return to the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. Coeducation at men’s universities was perceived to be far more subversive of normative gender relations. From the beginning, coeducation was linked to competition with between men and women for middle-class employment.

In Canada, support for coeducation developed first at small Protestant colleges, for example, at Mount Allison, which had ties to similar evangelical institutions in the United States. By contrast, the association of coeducation with American populism gave it little credibility within Anglican institutions—McGill, Trinity, and St. John’s at Manitoba—where cultural attitudes were shaped by Oxford and Cambridge. In Catholic higher education, universities such as St. Francis Xavier and Ottawa, as well as those Catholic colleges within federated structures like St. Boniface at Manitoba and St. Michael’s at the University of Toronto, were intended for priests and lay leaders. The men who made up their faculty and Boards could not accept coeducation. To provide for women, orders of women religious, such as the Congregation of Notre Dame at St. Francis Xavier, founded colleges in connection with their convent academies, playing an essential role in the provision and expansion of Catholic women’s education.

In response to an intense campaign, by 1903, women had been admitted into most men’s universities in English Canada. Outside of Catholic higher education, coeducation became the dominant model in Canadian universities. By 1900, most English-Canadian universities accepted women into their faculties of arts and science, as undergraduates with the right to attend classes alongside men students, and graduate with a degree. Francophone women had only limited access to higher education during this early period. Except for two Catholic colleges, Notre Dame and Bruyère, which gained affiliation to degree programs at the Université d’Ottawa in 1919, French-language universities did not admit women until 1936, when Laval opened its degrees to women.

These women entered an academic world shaped by religion, and at most Canadian universities at this time, that world was one of evangelical Protestantism. Each university operated within distinct provincial and local contexts, and it is significant that Mount Allison, Queen’s, Victoria, Acadia, and Dalhousie—the first five universities to admit women between 1872 and 1881—had ties to the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches at the time. Universities offered a broad foundation in the liberal arts, and their courses were designed to form young men into leaders in professions like medicine and law, as well as in business and politics. Gradually, the B.A. degree expanded to include new courses in physics, biochemistry, history, and modern languages. Yet, even as universities became more specialized, the sciences usually continued in faculties of arts, or in combined faculties of arts and science. Only in the 1920s did the B.Sc. emerge as a distinct degree granted to students in mathematics or science rather than arts.

For the small Protestant colleges, allowing women to attend classes was part of a larger embrace of more sweeping changes that gave their institutions a stake in the future. Universities were cognizant of the material changes brought about by the rise of public education, the new market economy, and the shifting financial priorities of many Canadian families. While these institutions publicly endorsed the ways in which coeducation would benefit women, they also recognized that women’s participation in their institutions would be an important component of their future successes. Thus, the admission of women was accomplished in a spirit of optimism but grounded by a calculated measure of expedience.

Changing structures, narrowing opportunities

Early women students were attracted into the sciences, studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology, and sought employment as journalists, civil servants, and researchers. As new kinds of work became available in the commercial and business sectors, women trusted that a bachelor’s degree would provide the foundation they needed to access a wide variety of middle-class jobs in banks, business offices, real estate firms, hospitals, or municipal government.

The promise of equal education, however, was not fulfilled in the longer term. Women’s integration into higher education cannot be seen as a linear and progressive narrative. For much of the twentieth century, coeducation proved to work against women’s interests in a variety of important ways. It deterred women from entering programs dominated by men, delayed the hiring of women faculty and researchers, and often resulted in inferior space on campus for women’s extracurricular and athletic activities.

Women’s integration into higher education cannot be seen as a linear and progressive narrative.

By the 1920s, universities were more specialized and began to play a more central role in the process of professionalization. Universities became modern research institutions with professional schools in law, medicine, and engineering, as well as greatly enlarged faculties of arts and science with new programs in the sciences and social sciences. The idea of professional status changed to include a more specific occupational identity, one regulated and defined by a body of knowledge imparted by university education and certification. Most of the new professional schools established boundaries that excluded women. Some institutions refused women outright during the admission process, while others discouraged them by introducing formal or informal quotas, restricting access to articling or interning experiences in law offices and hospitals, and fostering unwelcoming environments.

All these changes in higher education stimulated gendered debates over what constituted a profession, the greater value of theoretical disciplines based on academic knowledge versus technical skill, and the extent to which the university should teach applied and practical training. In the early twentieth century, motivated by fear that B.A. degrees were becoming feminized and diminished in value, Canadian universities created professional courses designed to attract women out of the faculties of arts, predicated on gendered assumptions about women’s interests and abilities, such as household science, social work, nursing, and library science. The segregation of gendered professions was compounded by a larger movement of the sciences away from the arts faculties, the establishment of the B.Sc. as a degree distinct from the B.A., and the development of an increasingly masculine culture within the fields of science and technology.

Systemic inequities have shaped Canadian higher education, and much more transformative change is necessary before all students can exercise their right to equal education in a supportive and inclusive environment. But the history of women’s admission to universities offers us the important reminder that even the most rigid institutions can change. In Canada’s newly coeducational universities, women proved that they could compete with men in arts, sciences, and professional programs, and challenged the gendered discourse that academic citizenship belonged to men alone.

Sara Z. MacDonald is a Professor of History in the School of Liberal Arts at Laurentian University.