- Transformations: The Life of Margaret Fulton, Canadian Feminist, Educator, and Social Activist
For more than a decade, James Doyle has chronicled a crucial but lesser-known strand of English-Canadian culture. In earlier work, Doyle had turned to the cross-border literary production of the 'transition years' – a heady time, as shown in his study of the personal and political encounter of two New England and Quebecois literary dynasties (Annie Howells and Achille Fréchette ). A reconstruction of the work of the now-forgotten Walter Blackburn Harte – the peripatetic essayist, editor, and first publisher of Sui Sin Far, 'mother' of Asian–North American writing – revealed the strong countercultural strain of the period, as bohemians and Whitmanites, spiritualists and symbolists, struggled against capitalist conformity (The Fin de Siècle Spirit: Walter Blackburn Harte and the American/Canadian Literary Milieu of the 1890s ). This initiated Doyle's tracking of the 'left' legacy in Canadian letters: the literary labours of socialists, communists, and reformers, a rich vein running sometimes underground in ephemeral publications, but also surfacing in the writings of many now-canonical authors (Progressive Heritage: The Evolution of a Politically Radical Tradition in Canada ). While the book reviewed here has a different genesis – in friendship and collegiality, and in Fulton's seriocomic challenge, as to whether a male author could attempt a female, and feminist, 'subject' – it may be contextualized within Doyle's larger concerns. How does literary and critical writing contribute to cross-cultural understanding and social change? What broader political role should the humanities play? The title of Transformations neatly signals both the evolution of Margaret [End Page 375] Fulton's life and careers, and her gritty faith in the possibility of egalitarian, life-enhancing institutions.
Fulton is a former president of Mount Saint Vincent University, a pioneer of Canada's 'second wave' feminist movement, an environmentalist, and an internationalist. She has received a baker's dozen or so of honorary degrees, membership in the Order of Canada, and the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Person's Case – a salutary reminder that when Fulton was born in Manitoba in 1922, women were not yet constitutional 'persons,' a status later gained through the legal battle fought by western Canadian women. Fulton was formed in the same moral mixture of political skepticism, community cooperation, and roll-up-the-sleeves hard work. After years as a teacher, she achieved a bachelor's degree from Manitoba and then a doctorate in English from Toronto, working as a residence don meanwhile. (Dissuaded from tackling the radically innovative topic of Jane Welsh Carlyle, she instead examined Thomas Carlyle as a public intellectual.) The next transitions were rapid. After seven years teaching literature at Wilfrid Laurier, Fulton became dean of women at the University of British Columbia with an appointment to the education faculty when English refused to accept her. She defined her duties perhaps more broadly than the administration wished, vigorously combatting on-campus sexism and clearing a curricular space for women's issues. Next appointed president of Mount Saint Vincent and serving two terms, she helped to make MSVU a centre for feminist scholarship and for community interaction. Fulton retired from her duties in 1986, but not from (still-ongoing) social and political interests.
This biography deliberately focuses on Fulton's 'ideas and experiences in relation to the many public questions she has addressed in her life's work.' Transformations is especially noteworthy in portraying Fulton as an educational visionary, and in providing an overview of her speeches, writings, and administrative experimentation. When Fulton assumed the presidency, MSVU had begun to admit male students, and was commencing secularization (as Wilfrid Laurier, once Waterloo Lutheran, had done before). But Fulton continued to see the merit of women-only colleges, and of institutions with a spiritual mission, for reasons that cannot be dismissed as nostalgic. Experiencing from the front lines the boom of the Canadian multiversity, and the development of separate administrative superstructures, Fulton fought with passion for higher education envisaged otherwise. She developed at MSVU 'the first...