Commentary | Prejudice with a grin

We should be ashamed that Stephen Leacock worked at McGill

Like any power structure, McGill likes to trumpet its successes. Part of this involves promoting notable figures associated with the University in the hope that their prestige will rub off on the institution. The academic and humourist Stephen Leacock is one of these figures. His name is included among the “McGill Pioneers” and is also stamped onto the 1960s brutalist monstrosity that towers above McTavish. However, power structures also have a habit of hiding their own faults, and true to form, McGill is shy about exposing the darker side of Leacock. A glance through some of his writings reveals an imperialist, racist, and deeply misogynistic man.

Though a professor of political economy at McGill, his real fame came from his fiction, and in particular, his humour. At his height, he was one of the most admired humourists in the English-speaking world, and perhaps the best known Canadian writer in any genre. Leacock’s novel Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is still widely read today, over 100 years after it was first published.

McGill is shy about exposing the darker side of Leacock. A glance through some of his writings reveals an imperialist, racist, and deeply misogynistic man.

By this measure, we might celebrate Leacock and his relationship to McGill. However, coupled with his humour were forays into social criticism – and any appreciation of his work must take these into account. For a start, Leacock was an unashamed misogynist. He regularly referred to women’s suffrage and women’s access to education as “the woman problem.” In his essay The Woman Question, he portrays the feminist militating for equal rights at the time as “the Awful Woman with spectacles,” arguing that the relatively new phenomenon was part of a historical trend of troublesome women. He was no stranger to violent imagery, either, pointing out that in “the Middle Ages, [they] called [a troublesome woman] a witch and burned her.”

That being said, he did admit that the momentum of the feminist movement was bound to achieve results, and further argued that legally speaking, it was wrong to bar women from any profession. To assuage his fellow conservatives, though, he writes that dismantling legal boundaries would amount to nothing anyway: “Women have just as good a right to fail at being lawyers as they have at anything else.” Occupations, to Leacock, were strictly gendered, and any attempt by women to gain entry into the world of men would flop.

This is stock misogyny, but it’s worth noting that even in the early 20th century his ideas were considered antiquated. Describing his male and female undergraduate students at McGill in the 1930s, long after the co-education debate in Canada was over, Leacock writes that “there is no need to raise here the question of which is superior and which is inferior (though I think, the Lord help me, I know the answer to that too).” Most galling though, was his assertion that he wasn’t telling women what they ought to do, but explaining to them what they wanted for themselves. In another essay, Woman’s Level, he argues that university education for women is ineffectual because they are destined for the role of “home and mother.” For their own good, Leacock writes that “women need not more freedom but less.”

His imperialism was steeped in vicious racism. In line with his patronizing of women, he thought imperialism was a just way to keep “savages” (his words) from murdering each other.

It should come as no surprise then that someone as prejudiced as Leacock was a fierce advocate of the British Empire. What’s more, his imperialism was steeped in vicious racism. In line with his patronizing of women, he thought imperialism was a just way to keep “savages” (his words) from murdering each other. In An Apology for the British Empire (apology as in defence), Leacock writes that “the right people to keep the world safe and decent and fair, for all the people, decent or not, are the English-speaking peoples.” Furthermore, he goes on to say that in India and Nigeria, the Indigenous population was so divided that they required colonial subjugation for their own good. It rarely occurred to him to acknowledge the movements of national liberation that aimed to right the injustice of exploitation from abroad.

To add insult to injury, Leacock opposed the immigration of people he considered inferior, stating, “We would never dream of letting in Indians.” In another essay, despairing of immigrants from Central Europe, he declares that “in Canada, unless we maintain this British stock, we are lost.”

Still, many in the Canadian elite fall back on the trope of Leacock as a brilliant, kind-hearted, and good-humoured man; someone of whom Canadians can be proud. To writer Guy Vanderhaeghe, he is one of the “great interpreters of this country.” At best though, Leacock was an interpreter of anglo-, British-Canadian men during the decline of the Empire.

Why does McGill still boast about this man? Many alumni have gone on to do good in the world – Leacock is not one of them.

Why does McGill still boast about this man? Many alumni have gone on to do good in the world – Leacock is not one of them. The tired argument that he was merely a ‘man of his time’ does not hold water here either – socialists and feminists at the beginning of the 20th century were vocally and actively dismantling archaic beliefs. These very militants were the subjects of his ridicule.

That a building is still named after him and that he is still touted as someone to admire speaks to McGill’s own colonial, sexist, and racist history. Moving on from such a troubled history requires acknowledgement that it exists. At the very least, McGill should be honest in its portrayal of Leacock. In today’s world, we would not hesitate to call him what he was – a violent, racist, woman-hater.


Emmet Livingstone is the commentary editor at The Daily, but his opinions here are his own. To contact him, please email emmet.livingstone@mail.mcgill.ca.


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