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20th Anniversary

We should give a course on ourselves

Simone de Beauvoir Institute grew out of self-discovery


by Barbara Black

The Simone de Beauvoir Institute has been celebrating its 20th anniversary: Last March, a dinner was given, a panel discussion on feminism will take place tomorrow, and a reunion will be part of Homecoming 98.

However, the Institute's founding year, 1978, marked the culmination of a tumultuous decade of feminist activity at two campuses.

One reason one of the first Canadian women's studies programs developed here is that there was a critical mass, however small, of women academics. Back in 1968, Greta Nemiroff and Christine (now Sister Prudence) Allen were young professors at Sir George Williams University. Both were struggling to complete their theses amid diapers and feeding schedules.

"We had had babies two weeks apart," Nemiroff recalled recently.
"I was doing my thesis on Kafka, and Christine was doing hers on Kierkegaard. We were trying to talk about our work, and we simply couldn't get a sentence finished because of the children -- it was ridiculous. We said to each other that we should give a course on ourselves!"

It was an intoxicating idea. "We had both read The Second Sex [by Simone de Beauvoir] and Betty Friedan [The Feminine Mystique]. We got tremendously excited." With some difficulty, the pair got approval to start a course, which they co-taught in the evening, so that mothers could get babysitters or husbands to mind the children. The courses were immediately popular.

Women's studies was a do-it-yourself discipline, invented through heated debate, public protest and personal testimony in universities across North America. "The students themselves taught a lot," Nemiroff said, "and at first, it was easy to keep up with all the literature."

"People were so desperate to explain themselves," she went on. "Women were very isolated, even intellectually. We gave them the opportunity to write about their own experiences. There were all sorts and ages of women, and from the beginning, about 10 per cent of the students were men."

Over at Loyola College, the same phenomenon was going on, as Professors Marguerite Andersen and Katherine Waters started giving similar courses. They were soon joined by Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, Bina Friewald, and others.

The Loyola courses included invited experts, such as left-wing U.S. sociologist Marlene Dixon, and an advanced integrative seminar was developed there. French professor Marguerite Andersen remembers teaching Women and Society in 1971-72. Most of the students, at least 30, contributed to a book called Mother Was Not a Person, which became something of a Canadian bestseller.

"Many of my classes were panel discussions," Andersen remembered. "We had a Jesuit debating with [abortionist] Henry Morgentaler. But it didn't seem confrontational. People were astonishingly willing to come. It was the first interdisciplinary course in Canada." For years after the merger, similar courses were given on both campuses, but increasingly, the program was based downtown.

Waters, who taught a course on poet Sylvia Plath, remembers tough resistance from the curriculum committee, whose demands for a bibliography from a newly invented discipline were hard to satisfy. Still, the women prevailed. The program was helped through Senate by Allen and part-timer Alanna Furlong.

When Loyola and Sir George Williams merged in 1974 to form Concordia University, plans were soon broached for five colleges. The first two to be approved were the Liberal Arts College and the new women's studies college.

By this time, the popular SGW unit was a hotbed of discussion over pedagogical approach, with Nemiroff and Allen, who gave introductory courses that drew 200 students, favouring a liberal admissions policy and a strong administrative voice for the students, and others favouring a more rigourous academic structure.

For Religion Professor Sheila McDonough, a pioneer who was to be associate principal of the Institute three times, the focus was always academic. As early as 1970, she taught a course on women and religion. "We used the Greek plays, and it was always a lot of fun. It was amazing, really, what we did," she recalled recently. "So much is taken for granted now."

She and her colleagues applied the "hermeneutics of suspicion" to everything written by men, looking for the possibility of a woman's perspective -- something we now do almost by reflex. "We got [the concept] into every academic discipline," McDonough said proudly.

Many wanted to name the new college after an early Canadian feminist, but it was impossible to find one whose views on, say, abortion, would be acceptable to feminists of the '70s. Nemiroff, who was connected to the distinguished French feminist de Beauvoir "through a friend of a friend," won that one, assuring international notice for the Institute that continues to this day.

Waters, who recently took early retirement, is sharply critical of what she sees as the lack of internal support for women's studies. "They've begged for staff, for money, and there still isn't a graduate degree [in women's studies at the Institute]," she said. A crucial mistake, as she sees it, was for the women themselves not to get outside help, even corporate funding.

She and others expressed regret that much of the teaching over the years has depended on part-time teachers, since full professors were not assigned to the Institute.

The Simone
de Beauvoir Institute today

The heart of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute lies in the women's studies program and the roughly 120 women and men (usually only two or three men at a time) who choose to study there.

In total, more than 500 students take women's studies courses annually. Last year, 21 courses were offered, covering such topics as health, sexuality, violence against women, feminist thought, politics and the women's movement, and spirituality and the environment. Many students are initially attracted by a particular issue, such as workplace equity.

The Institute has two full-time faculty, so it relies on part-time faculty (fellows) to teach several courses. It also draws on graduate students and independent scholars to bring an interdisciplinary aspect to the program. Subjects such as women and addiction and First Nations women are either included in existing courses or taught as special courses.

The Institute publishes an annual journal of scholarly and creative work, and houses a documentation centre. From Gloria Steinem, Abby Lippman and Marilyn Waring to discussions on women's smoking and female bodybuilding, the series' range of topics and speakers has been as diverse as women themselves.

Chantal Maillé has been principal since 1995. She's aware of the charge that women's studies scholars are slaves to political correctness.

"Yes, it's difficult, because the issues we're dealing with are political, emotional and controversial, so tolerance becomes a key issue. What's important is to keep the debate as open as possible, so people see that there isn't just one way to think about things."

- Liz Warwick, in the current issue of Concordia Magazine

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.