boast post · history · writing

Boast Post: Not Drowning!

Back in the late 80s, the English Department at the UofA hired five women in a single year and then appointed a woman Dean of Arts.

Hold onto your hats, because this handcart’s headed for hell.

A handful of professors founded a Merit Only group with the explicit purpose of winding back equity policies in university hiring. They tore apart the new English professors’ credentials in the campus paper, they organized letter-writing campaigns to the new University President, and they generally menaced colleagues and administrators in the name of “free speech.”

They sought, and eventually won, mainstream media coverage of the outrage. Feminists, together with ‘deconstructionists’ and other equally seditious entities, were featured on the front cover of the Alberta Report in 1994, the conservative Christian weekly founded by Ted Byfield and later taken over by his son Link. (Yes, mainstream: the Alberta Report could be found in doctors’ waiting rooms and the like, where it didn’t raise too many eyebrows.) Women, the story said, were taking over the university and bending its august mission to their traitorous will. It was a Famous Five persons case for our age.

I wasn’t mentioned in the coverage, which unnerved me at the time. (Was I not working hard to dismantle the patriarchy, one scholarly article at a time? How could they not even know my name?) But of course it was deeply dismaying to the friends and colleagues who were maligned in the scurrilous reporting. They spent endless hours correcting the record and battling the Merit-Only group in person and in print. Two of the five English professors left within a few years, one for a Scottish university and one for a non-academic life.

If you want the full grisly story, Pat Clements’s recollection of what it was like to be that woman dean, “My World as in My Time,” makes for bracing reading. And where might you find that memoir? Well, gentle reader, I’m glad you asked: it is in our brand new book! Edited by Susan Brown, Jeanne Perreault, Jo-Ann Wallace and yours truly, Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011) is a collection of meditations on the status of academic life for women today – or is that the status of life for academic women today?

This is not a review, just a shameless plug, so let me rave for a minute about what else is in the book – others will say how well it succeeds.

Contributors write about work, whether it’s their jobs (Donna Pennee, Christine Overall), their scholarship (Christine Bold and Amber Dean on remembering women, Marjorie Stone on sex trafficking, Lise Gotell on the Nixon case in Vancouver, a splendid way of thinking through the question of separate space for women), or the labour of others (Ann Wilson on night cleaners and knitting). Susan Brown and Cecily Devereux write about the vexed status of motherhood in the academy. Len Findlay rants (in the best Findlayan way) about institutional branding. Several pieces talk about periodizing feminism, and several of them are co-written across generational, geographical or intellectual divides: Jo-Ann Wallace and Tessa Jordan, Phil Okeke and Julie Rak, Rusty Shteir and Katherine Binhammer, Liz Groeneveld.

Your very own co-blogger Erin Wunker thinks through the experience of being savaged (there’s no other word for it) at a feminist conference.

Illness comes up a lot, metaphorically and literally – and the literal illnesses are both physical (Aruna Srivastava) and mental (my piece, though please don’t read it because I am feeling quite exposed and a little less plucky than I did when it was in press). Isobel Grundy talks about mentoring. Heather Murray offers a terrifically instructive history of co-education in Toronto. And the fierce, inimitable, gorgeous Aritha Van Herk – oh, how she can write! – holds it all together with a meditation on women and bathtubs and oceans and “waves” of all sorts.

So here it is.

Ted Byfield, this one’s for you.

8 thoughts on “Boast Post: Not Drowning!

  1. Congrats on the publication. And on surviving all the truly awful stuff to still be here and doing such great work all these years later. (I'm going to avoid thinking too hard about how many years.)


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