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  • Duncan McDowall

From Both Sides of the Glass Ceiling

The Queen’s history department where I arrived as an eager undergraduate in the fall of 1968 epitomized the academic patriarchy that had shaped Queen’s since the 1840s.The department was stocked with twenty tenured male professors, supported by an additional two male lecturers. Pipes, tweed jackets and leather brogues were much in evidence. The only women in the departmental establishment were two instructors and anentirely female administrative staff. Even the handsome, newly-opened building in which the department was situated was named for a male – John Watson, the late nineteenth-century philosopher who had done so much to bolster the humanities at Queen’s. Through the next five years of my undergraduate and master’s studies at Queen’s I did not have a single female professor or even a female teaching assistant.

In retrospect, what is particularly disturbing is the fact that it never occurred to me that something was amiss, that the teaching of history should not be a male preserve. Instead, Iblithely operated under the assumption that history was transmitted through a male perspective. That perspectiveunderlay the historiography that I was drawn to as an undergraduate – probing the evolution of political parties, the Commonwealth and business history -- all themes that generally reflected male enterprise in society. Indeed, I was oblivious to the growing presence of brilliant female scholars in these years, women such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Gertrude Himmelfarb in the United States and Hilda Neatby and Margaret Ormsby in Canada.

*Illustration 1: Black and white photo of a middle-aged man with a goatee, thick rimmed glasses and a headphone hanging out of his left ear staring directly at camera.

None of this is to say that I have ever regretted wholesale the education I received those years ago at Queen’s. Classes were small. Scintillating second-year seminars of fifteen participants etched the skills of debate and presentation into my young historian’s mind. There was focus and engagement in my professors, many of whom were labouring to complete their doctorates in that heady decade when Queen’s tripled in size and young faculty abounded. Honours students were given a mind-opening, first-year seminar that explored the intellectual roots of modern western society. Of course, the programme was unduly Eurocentric and was only passingly interested in the social history revolution that was invading North America, but for all its orthodoxy what I got at Queen’s was still formativelyinfluential.

By 1972 when I received my BA, change was afoot. Second wave feminism, with its dedication to pushing women beyond narrow political rightsinto a fuller world of equal opportunity, was eroding old notions of gender entitlement. Canada had had a royal commission on the status of women. Women were becoming activists -- Laura Sabia’s 1969 National Action Committee on the Status of Women, for instance -- agitating to break “the glass ceiling” above their heads that denied them access to the full range of life’s opportunities.

At Queen’s, these attitudes and a surge of Baby Boom demographics brought women to campus in unprecedented numbers. A century before, John Watson had courageously advocated the admission of women to the college, only to be rebuffed by the majority opinion that women were better suited to more domestic spheres.In the 1880s, Queen’s hesitantly admitted a smattering of women into arts and medicine. Even then, women students were confined to their own cloistered undergraduate society, the Levana Society (which would persist until the mid-1960s).

In 1894, the college awarded an honorary degree to that quintessential Victorian bluestocking Lady Aberdeen. She took the occasion to urge the handful of women then attending Queen’s “to rebel against the system” and to regard higher education as training for “higher service” to society. That prescription was finally filled in the 1970s. By the academic year of 1972/73, 64.7% of first-year honours arts and science students were female. This number lagged in other faculties – a meagre 2.3% in applied science, for instance. But the tide had turned and by mid-decade an absolute majority of full-time, first-year Queen’s undergraduates were female.

**Illustration 2: Woman dressed in graduation cap and gown looking down at her diploma.

The tide turned more slowly at the faculty level. By the time I graduated in 1972, there were twenty-five tenure-stream professors in the department. Only one woman, the historian of Québec Hilda Neatby, had broken the male monopoly. Neatby had, however,been invited to Queen’s to write the first volume of the Queen’s history already sporting a full professorship previously awarded at the University of Saskatchewan. The situation was much the same across the entire university: of Queen’s 793 full-time faculty, only 61 or 7.7% were female. Of them, only one (Neatby) was a full professor. The other females were clumped at the other end of the academic ladder; 55.7% were assistant professors and 27.9% were lecturers. In the history department, a handful of women – lecturers such as Catherine Brown, Joan Sherwood and Patricia Malcolmson --were beginning to crack the glass ceiling through their dedicated teaching.

Despite its conservative, gradualist culture, Queen’s began to shift its gender balance over the next decades. External pressures prodded campus attitudes and norms– Ottawa and Queen’s Park, for instance, established standards for pay equity and enshrined human rights and freedoms in our constitution. At the same time, women at Queen’s learned to assert their own agenda. In 1972, Principal John Deutsch, sensing the force of second wave feminism, established the Principal’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women at Queen’s University and appointed librarian Lin Good to chair its deliberations. The committee was tasked to monitor the progress and frustrations of allwomen at Queen’s – students, administrators and professors – and to recommend ways by which women might enjoy more parity. The committee maintained its watch until the mid-1990s and did much to chivvy the university – equal pensions for women, day care on campus, affirmative action in the hiring of new faculty, to name just a few initiatives.

Professor standing at the front of a lecture hall filled with students.

The pace of rebalancing gender roles was given added velocity in 1974 when many of Queen’s women professors banded together to form the Association of Women Teaching at Queen’s (AWTAQ). Drawing particular strength from arts departments,especially sociology, and nursing, AWTAQ acted as a clever and persistent lobby group on campus. It organized lectures, monitored faculty recruitment and railed against sexist practices on campus. Thanks to a motion by an AWTAQ member, the Senate, for instance, dropped its practice of addressing women professors as “Miss” and “Mrs.”

In the early twentieth-first century, a different, and still evolving, gender balance pertains at Queen’s. The university has seen women serve as principal, as chancellor, as rector and as numerous deans. Women now constitute 39.7% of full-time faculty. In the history department, four of eleven full professors are women. Eight of the department’s associate and assistant professors are currentlywomen. Russian historian Rebecca Manley sits as the department’s first female chair. To my joy, History 121 – the Intellectual Origins of the Contemporary West – still sits proudly on the departmental curriculum, but now coexists with courses on gender, diversity and culture. Increasingly, it would seem, a glass ceiling no longer, frustrates the ambitions of aspiring young female historians.

Any student intent on gaining a better understanding of Queen’s coming to grips with its gender culture would be well advised to pay a visit to Queen’s wonderful University Archives in Ryan Hall ( There, the papers of the Association of Women Teaching at Queen’s (Locator #2303.49) and the Principal’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (Locator #1253/1254.1) await interrogation by the next generation of historians.

Duncan McDowall, Arts’72 & MA’74

University Historian

*ILLUSTRATION #1 (Professor A.R.M. Lower V28-P-138) As Douglas Professor of Canadian History from 1947 to his retirement in 1959, Arthur Lower was a pillar of the Queen’s history department. At every turn, he championed civil liberties in the face of intervention by the state and the university administration. Yet, when a bright English immigrant librarian, Lin Good, asked Lower about the possibility of taking a doctorate in the department, Lower brusquely replied: “I don’t like women students and I don’t like English students.” To her credit, Lin replied: “I’m not sure that I like you.”

**ILLUSTRATION #2 (Lady Aberdeen V28-P-22). When Lady Aberdeen was given an honorary degree by Queen’s College in 1894, she urged the handful of women students in the audience to “rebel against the system” and advised them that “a smattering of knowledge” was not enough to “train” women for the “high service” of tackling the “social problems and difficulties” of modern society.

#Professors #Alumni #HistoryDepartment #LadyAberdeen #Gender

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