University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Celebrating 120 Years of Women at U of T

Lectures and events mark persistent struggle for equality

Women have enjoyed a long and illustrious involvement at U of T since they were first admitted to academic programs 120 years ago. But the anniversary, which the university marked this spring with a number of lectures and public events, also highlighted the persistent struggle by women through the decades to overcome hurdles and challenge long-held views.

Take John F. Kennedy’s visit to campus in the fall of 1957. The Massachusetts senator had agreed to participate in a Hart House debate. The only hitch was that Hart House, whose founder Vincent Massey held certain Edwardian views on the separation of the sexes, was almost completely off limits to women.

After a group of female students including Judy Sarick (née Graner), an English and philosophy major and reporter for The Varsity, tried unsuccessfully to convince the warden of Hart House to give them access to the debate, they decided it was time for the antiquated rules to be broken. In a scheme reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, they disguised themselves as men (dressing in trousers and hats) and entered the hall, occupying seats near the front row. The debate was about to begin when a security guard noticed that one of the women was wearing nail polish, and they were all escorted from the building.

“It was definitely a political statement, though there was lots of fun around it,” recounts Sarick. “This was before the feminist revolution when there was little institutional support for women. It was up to the individual to be as brave as she needed to be.”

U of T accepted its first female students in 1884, but it was not until the 1960s that more than a handful of women became tenured faculty members. The enrolment of women in master’s and doctoral programs at U of T did not equal men until the mid-1980s and late 1990s respectively. Hart House became fully co-educational in 1972.

Today, more than half of U of T’s students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are women, including 50 per cent in the humanities, social sciences and medicine. Also, one-third of faculty and approximately 57 per cent of full- and part-time staff are women.

U of T’s Status of Women Officer Connie Guberman says the numbers indicate that women are doing “phenomenally well.” But she adds that it’s important to look at the conditions for female students, staff and faculty, too. “Gender equity is only partly about numbers,” she says. “We need to look at diversity to ensure that all women can thrive while they are here.”

Guberman’s office arranged nearly 120 events over 20 days in February and March under the theme of “Challenge and Change.” They included the launch of a new lecture series featuring outstanding women scholars and a breakfast for professional women with Mary Anne Chambers, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. “What was so fabulous was the breadth of activities,” says Guberman.

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