- Towards a More Humane Academy?Some Observations from a Canadian Feminist Historian
The women in the Canadian Historical Association, who since 1975 have also had their own CHA-affiliated society, the Canadian Committee on Women's History (CCWH), have become significant enough to the profession that when the dates of the CHA's annual meeting conflict with those of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, CHA Council has had the dates of their meeting changed. But even with the CHA's show of flexibility, a good thing, as Kerber shows us, for the academy and its intellectual workers, the close timing of two major conferences has still kept many women from attending both, whether due to family responsibilities, financial constraints, publishing deadlines, administrative workloads—or a combination of several of these and other factors.
My brief response to Kerber's insightful essay can consider only a few of the important issues raised. Of course, my comments are influenced by my vantage point: I completed my graduate training as a Canadian feminist labor and immigration historian in the 1980s, a time when the possibilities that women's, immigrant, working-class, and social history held for rewriting Canadian (and all) history seemed endless. I was part of a small but active cohort of socialist feminists who had much respect for the earlier generation of Canadian women who, inspired by the same progressive movements that Kerber describes for the United States, obtained faculty positions in the 1970s and, despite barriers and backlashes, established the field of Canadian women's history (often in conjunction with women's studies programs) and fought for gender equity on committees everywhere. But we were also determined to make our own mark. If we appeared a little too brash, even a little too "in-your-face ethnic" for some, it was in part because of the groundwork laid by those who came before us (Veronica Strong-Boag, Sylvia Van Kirk, Linda Kealey, Deborah Gorham, and others). For us, as for them, there were also U.S. role models. (Strong-Boag and Kealey, for example, first taught women's history as teaching assistants in the first women's history course taught at the University of Toronto, by Natalie Zemon Davis and Jill Kerr Conway.) But it was not until we younger women had achieved our own success in the academy, and the work that it entailed—the ever-expanding research and publishing commitments, undergraduate and graduate supervisions, speaking [End Page 141] engagements, and committee work—that we fully appreciated just how much work went into paving the way.
It is not that there were no Canadian women historians before the 1970s. We have had our share of bright young women who were discouraged, in the 1940s, 1950s, and earlier, by the male professors who did not wish to train a woman. Since its founding in 1922, ten of the 80 CHA presidents have been women, most of them elected since 1991. The first women were not elected until the 1960s. Both of them were formidable (some said "difficult"!) women who had learned to operate in a man's world: Hilda Neatby (1962–63) became a controversial public figure in the 1950s for her anti-egalitarian attack on Dewey-inspired forms of public education; and Margaret Ormsby (1965–66), who earned her PhD from Bryn Mawr in 1937, became the "doyenne of BC history." There was one woman elected in each of the two subsequent decades. The CCWH played a key political role in the early 1990s when we contested the nomination of a male historian, and opponent of affirmative action, with our own candidate, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, a Quebec historian, who won the election. We now appear to have settled into a pattern of nominating a woman to the position every two or three years; evidently, some men think we should not have two women presidents in a row! All the woman (like the men) have been white (our first Jewish president was elected in 1999) and only one women has been a francophone Quebecker—Nadia Fahmy-Eid (1995–96).
Notwithstanding some real differences between the United States and Canada (for example, virtually all of...