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Revolutionary Road

Forty years ago, an intrepid group of professors and students sparked progress for women across U of T

It started with a simple question.

In the 1960s, Jill Ker Conway, who went on to co-found one of the first women’s studies courses at U of T, wondered why women, who’d had access to education for more than 130 years in North America, had “so little to show for it in terms of roles in the professions, politics and the academy.” The question inspired Conway’s Harvard doctoral thesis.

In 1970 at U of T, activists in the women’s liberation movement took that same concern to a meeting of the new Interdisciplinary Studies Department: Why were women still largely absent from curriculum and textbooks and barely present in faculty ranks 85 long years after the first female students graduated from the university? The activists suggested a women’s course would help remedy the situation.

Remarkably, two such courses would appear on the academic calendar the following year, and attract full enrolment. In fact, the courses were so successful that they led to the founding of what has become Canada’s oldest and most prestigious women’s studies program – celebrating its 40th anniversary this fall. The courses also asserted gender equality as a key value at U of T.

But it didn’t happen without a fight.

Women’s studies grew out of the great “ferment” on campuses in the late ‘60s, recalls Professor Natalie Zemon Davis, who helped establish one of the first such courses at U of T. Though 83, she looks a spry 60-something, bounding up the stairs of her Victorian home in Toronto to retrieve documents from that course. Her eyes glow as she recounts those stormy years. As young academics, she and her husband, math professor Chandler Davis, had their U.S. passports revoked during the Red Scare. They took up teaching positions at U of T, where they were active in the anti-Vietnam war protests that saw students rise up and question institutionalized power. At U of T, the student protest focused on democratizing the university and giving students a stake in how it was run, through raucous occupations of the president’s office and teach-ins at Simcoe Hall.

Women – both students and faculty – were as active fighting for their rights, but, for them, true democracy required equality. The burgeoning women’s movement on campus led to one of the university’s first sit-ins, in 1970, with protesters advocating for campus daycare. They petitioned for reproductive rights and the decriminalization of abortion. Female undergrads repeatedly tried to gain access to Hart House student centre, which barred their entry until 1972. A women’s committee was organized within the Students’ Administrative Council, and members called out the rampant misogyny of the engineering newspaper Toike Oike and distributed free birth-control handbooks.

Amidst this fervour, two brilliant young women professors, Davis and Conway, began meeting for lunch. Davis, an expert in 16th-century European history, and Conway, in 18th-century to modern American history, talked about new ways of looking at history, “how to include marginal perspectives and voices left out, capture the texture and description of everyday life”– all pioneering ideas of social history. They also discussed personal challenges of being women in a male-dominated department. Davis remembers a male colleague referring to the men as “professor” and her as “Mrs.”

Determined to make academic life better for female graduate students, especially those with children, Davis sent a questionnaire to some and took their “very sensible” suggestions (such as campus daycare and flexible library hours) to the administration. They “just laughed and dismissed the concerns,” recalls Davis, who would prevail in the fight for a staff daycare. When Conway was passed over for promotion, while the cohort of male colleagues she was hired with were appointed to associate professor, she could come up with but one answer to that oft-asked question of why: she felt that on the basis of performance, the decision was discriminatory. She talked to the department chair, who wouldn’t reconsider, so she raised her case with the dean – who reversed the decision and promoted her. Conway then sent out a letter to female faculty, asking if others had experienced discrimination in pay and promotion. “They had horror stories way worse than mine,” she says. The group took the complaints to the then male-dominated faculty association. “They said, there’s really no discrimination here, and all you’ll do is reduce everyone’s salary.” Conway’s coterie persisted. “We decided to be very scholarly [in our approach], drawing on everyone’s expertise to do very thorough research.” They presented their findings to the Ontario ministry responsible for university education, leading to a model for pay equity and promotion that would be used across Canada. Still, a group of women faculty and librarians were still left out of U of T’s salary review process as late as 1989; the women successfully launched a lawsuit against the university that was finally settled in their favour, in 2002.

As their activist and intellectual friendship deepened, Conway and Davis discussed ways of bringing their interests together in one of the first women’s courses – “Society and the Sexes in Early Modern Europe and the United States” – which they taught in 1971/72. “Oh, we had so much fun,” says Davis. “This was a new history we were doing, on a subject that no one knew anything about.”

Many of their colleagues in the field scoffed at the venture, claiming there were no sources and that gender history was not a proper intellectual discipline, dismissing it as political and personal. Conway and Davis responded by scouring rare-book libraries for primary sources to load the academic canon. “We decided to make [the syllabus] so scholarly it would shame anyone who criticized it because their reading list would not stand up [to comparison],” says Conway. The course proved hugely popular: The lectures attracted other faculty, including many men, and students not even enrolled. Conway and Davis shared the syllabus freely with professors at other universities. It spread like wildfire and was used to help establish women’s studies courses across North America. Says Davis: “We looked at themes that had never been studied before – legal, religious and medical constructions of gender and self; range of sexual experience; relationship of family structures, marriage strategies and welfare in relation to state power; challenges of reading and authorship. Studying gender opened up all sorts of ways of looking at how societies evolved. It brought subjects together – literary studies and philosophy, anthropology and history – introducing an interdisciplinary consciousness to scholarship. It opened up multiple points of view and approaches that nourished other fields.”

But that glorious year would be the only time the two would teach the course together. The next year, Davis left to teach at Berkeley. She helped establish a women’s studies program there and at Princeton and Oxford during subsequent teaching stints. Davis also went on to write several seminal history texts, including The Return of Martin Guerre which became a feature film. She has been hailed as “one of the greatest” living historians. Conway was appointed U of T’s first female vice-president in 1973, but continued teaching the course until she left to become president of Smith College in Massachusetts in 1975. Between them, they have been awarded some 80 honorary degrees.

Improbably, another group of women launched a women’s studies course at U of T in 1971 – one that was even more contentious. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh was only a second-year undergrad representative on the Interdisciplinary Studies committee when a women’s course was proposed in 1970. Yet she and graduate student Kay Armatage ran with the suggestion, organizing a teaching collective composed of some 15 students and women from the movement. They met weekly over the summer to develop a syllabus. “We proposed texts from our various disciplines, read intensely and became one another’s teachers,” says Ramkhalawansingh. In addition to making the course interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, they were determined to break down the traditional teacher/student hierarchical structure. Rather than formal lectures, there would be student-led discussions. They wanted students to question what and how they were taught and evaluated. The head of Interdisciplinary Studies, Professor Geoffrey Payzant, was supportive, but could not approve the course until a faculty member joined the teaching collective. (He taught philosophy.) It was no easy task given there were so few female professors and fewer still in a position to risk careers on such a radical venture. They finally found an ally in Professor Barbara Martineau at Scarborough College, and “FSW 200: Women in the Twentieth Century” was launched.

Some 200 women and a few men signed up. They were taught in seminars of 20 people each by teams of two from the teaching collective – which was composed of graduate students, women from the movement who weren’t even students at U of T and Ramkhalawansingh, though she was just in her third year. Their ambition to foster change was huge.

“Our focus was shining a light on inequality,” she says. “Our approach was very experimental. We were thumbing our nose a bit at the university.” The collective also ran a weekly lecture series that was open to the public, drawing some 3000 to 500 people to hear noted feminists such as journalist June Callwood, writer Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 Victoria), and lawyer and now Supreme Court judge Rosalie Abella (BA 1967 University College).

Writer Myrna Kostash (MA 1968) wrote a detailed diary-style account of that first year in women’s studies for Miss Chatelaine magazine. While the collective designed the course to be scholarly and substantive, they intended it to be personal and political, and invited students to relate their own experiences to the material. “It was a new way of getting people to learn,” wrote Kostash. While students eagerly attended class, it wasn’t until nearly halfway through that many dared speak up. Noted Kostash: “The Women’s Course is probably the most vital thing we could do at university and all we do is listen politely and nod about how oppressed we all are.” But, she wrote that when the floodgates finally opened, discussions turned into near “screaming matches” as women uncovered their own “shitty attitudes” toward other women and began questioning everything – how they had been socialized to think and behave according to patriarchal norms and even accept their own oppression.

Photo by Boris Spremo/

The next year, the teaching collective cheekily pushed the university to establish a women’s studies program by producing an unofficial calendar, highlighting existing courses that might complement such a program as well as sexist terms from official university documents. They cut, pasted, photocopied and distributed the “brochure” around campus, bringing considerable embarrassment to the administration. “We were told that this was not the way things were done,” says Ramkhalawansingh, “that a committee must be struck to look at the question.” A committee was struck, and it recommended a women’s studies program, which was officially launched in 1974/75 with a minor. Major and specialist degrees were added in 1980/81.

Ramkhalawansingh taught in the program while she did graduate work then joined the City of Toronto to develop its equity and diversity programs. She also helped establish City of Toronto scholarships for U of T’s women’s studies program. Armatage stayed at the university to help build the program, a monumental challenge given she and many of her colleagues did not have tenure in those early years, and the program had no departmental status to appoint faculty. “The administration remained deeply suspicious of us for at least a decade,” according to Armatage.

There were so few tenured female faculty at U of T then, that a male professor, Ronnie de Sousa, served as one of the early program directors. Says de Sousa: “It was thought that women suffered from not being taken seriously, and that I might be able to get more out of the administration in those early times. I regard myself as a feminist, and I was glad to help out.” Indeed, he continues to teach in the program.

Other early directors included Lorna Marsden, who would become president of Wilfrid Laurier University then York University, and Chaviva Hošek, later president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and director of policy for the federal Liberals during the Chrétien years. Says Hošek: “People like Kay were the real heroes for the guts they had. They had heavy teaching loads and short-term contracts, little research time, and they had to convince other departments to hire faculty who could also teach women’s studies courses, and they did it in a very fragile job situation with no tenure.”

Armatage eventually became a professor appointed to the cinema studies and women’s studies programs, and took a series of leadership roles in the latter, helping it become the Institute for Women & Gender Studies. It earned departmental status in 2005.

Instructors, tutorial assistants and students from those early courses went on to become major players in the women’s liberation movement, taking leadership roles in women’s studies programs across Canada and championing equity and diversity in government, community organizations and business. Lyba Spring, a member of the teaching collective, helped establish the Toronto Women’s Health Network and became a sexual health educator with Toronto Public Health. “The effect that feminism had on me was like scales falling from my eyes,” says Spring. “Students [in that course] began looking at the world in a totally different way, and understanding the self in relation to power and gender dynamics. Expectations for what women would do were very clear – you grew up and got married and had children – but we began to re-evaluate where we could end up.”

Monika Simon, one of the first students in the program, ended up in the president’s office of a major business trade organization after working her way up through the male-dominated beer industry, having a family and earning an MBA. She says taking women’s studies “helped me stand my ground as a woman in [the business] world that wasn’t quite prepared for my gender. The course made you realize you were not different from your male counterparts in terms of learning and education. It empowered you to take on anything and accomplish anything you wanted.”

One of the first recipients of the City of Toronto women’s studies scholarships, in 1988, was Amanda Dale. She says the women’s studies program required students to gain practical experience working in community agencies on issues of poverty, discrimination, violence and women’s health – invaluable preparation for her current role as executive director of Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers legal counselling, advocacy and support for women survivors of violence – some 4,000 a year. “These were not theoretical constructs for us,” says Dale. “This field required you to engage.” She says simply taking degrees that train people technically “misses a very important set of core ethical values you need to guide an agency whose goal is to improve the lives of people. I learned that in women’s studies, and it serves me each and every day.”

Yet, women’s studies programs – still small and thinly staffed – remain highly vulnerable to being cut in this era of scarce resources. U of T’s is still expanding, albeit on a shoestring budget, according to acting director Michelle Murphy. It began granting MA degrees in 2007 and, this fall, will accept its first PhD students. The Institute for Women & Gender Studies now offers 21 undergraduate courses, collaborates with some 27 departments that offer cross-appointed courses and has developed a strong interdisciplinary and transnational research focus – looking at how sex, gender, race and class construct identities, citizenship and institutions by also considering the histories shaping the world and the multiple nations that make up Toronto and Canada. Murphy says the students drive that focus, arriving at U of T from all over the world, with multiple experiences and perspectives on gender. “Our students are incredible,” she says. “They’re politicized, engaged, creative, active. With the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements, this is an exciting moment for young people. They feel like they can make the changes they want to see, that they can change history.”

Women’s studies and the feminist movement have certainly had a profound impact on the university. Women now comprise about 40 per cent of long-term faculty. In the last decade, Cristina Amon was appointed the dean of engineering, Catharine Whiteside the dean of medicine and Mayo Moran the dean of law – the first women to hold these positions at U of T.

Professor Njoki Wane, Status of Women officer at U of T, is blunt in her assertion that despite considerable progress made, sexism has not come to an end on campus. “Just like race relations departments have not ended racism, there is still sexism and we still need to be vigilant,” she says. “I get calls from students and more from female colleagues, usually about a sexist comment or behaviour. They’re usually in shock that this would still happen in 2012, that these comments are still being made, and they’re still being looked down on because they’re omen. They want to know how to deal with it, maybe get literature or courses to introduce to a department. At the time, there’s pain. It feels like a crisis. Sometimes they feel disempowered. After a conversation, they decide, ‘this cannot limit me.’ My sense is that women are very determined to get what they want and they won’t put up with being put down.”

And for all that significant achievement, the founders of women’s studies at U of T believe there is as much need as ever for the program. “Women’s studies courses were a way of feeding a body of knowledge and literature into mainstream courses so they might not need to continue,” notes Davis, “but they have not nourished scholarship as much as they should have. We still need the focused perspective to affect the mainstream.”

Hošek concurs. “[Women’s studies] has redefined what scholarship is. The last 40 years have been revolutionary in terms of cultural history, institutional history, biology and understanding the variability of gender, economics, medicine, literature, you name it. Scholarship has been hugely expanded and enriched by not leaving out half the human race.

“There’s been progress, but until the life chances of someone born female are as open to her as the life chances of someone born male in the same place, there’s going to be a ton of work to do. You can’t close your eyes and just wait for equality to happen. I thought we would have gotten past certain issues [such as leadership roles in business and government, pay equity, reproductive rights, access to education in developing countries and violence against women], but you can see things going backwards. . . . It tells me there’s lots of work left to do.”

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  1. 5 Responses to “ Revolutionary Road ”

  2. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh says:

    Although the focus of this article is on the program's origins, the program could not have grown without the consistent leadership of a number of other women: Margrit Eichler, Kathryn Morgan, Mary Nyquist, Sylvia Van Kirk, Sharzad Mojab, Heather Murray, June Larkin and several others.

    The endowment of various scholarships targeted to women by the City of Toronto could not have taken place without the support of former Mayor June Rowlands and former Councillor Anne Johnston, leaders in their own fields.

  3. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem says:

    I was just starting my career when this was happening. Great role models and wonderful examples of women fighting for rights. The changes they achieved have made a significant impact on my life and of many women globally. Thank you all!

  4. Carmelina says:

    Thank you for this article. In my time at U of T I remember taking a course "Women and Power in French Society." I enjoyed being able to spend a semester learning about bright, inspiring women.

    One can take inspiration from anyone, regardless of their gender, and I do every day. What is important about gender studies is that ensures that the accomplishments made by women and stories don't get lost.

    There will always be critics who will ask about the relevance about singling out studies based on gender. I would rather the conversation be about how what other studies can be singled out so that we may gain a greater appreciation of all the parts that make up the greater system we live in.

  5. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading this article. I understand that it is not possible to include all of the achievements of women as members of faculty and student body at U of T over the years. At the same time, it appears that women associated with the University of Toronto Library School (now the Faculty of Information), are rarely mentioned. Winifred Barnstead and Bertha Bassam, the first two directors, have had a lasting impact on the development of librarianship (“a woman’s profession”) in the province of Ontario. Nonetheless, their efforts in providing employment opportunities for women (outside of teaching and clerical work) are rarely acknowledged in discussions on women's history at the university.

    Agatha Barc
    BA 2012 UC

  6. suzanne clark says:

    Thank you for a return to the roots of women's studies at U of T. I always thought I would return for grad studies, and continue in the women's program. My years of course work (part-time, 1983-1992) included women's studies, social cultural anthropology, sociology and religious studies. In all of these courses--interdisciplinary by choice--I loved the insights of my professors. I understood and examined the world in new ways. I met wonderful women in those years, from many ethnic backgrounds. I grew up in many ways, while at U of T. Thank you.