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The Origins of Women’s Rights at McGill

McGill’s path to gender equality has never been straightforward

Across the world, the month of March has become synonymous with the progress of women’s rights. The US, UK, and Australia commemorate Women’s History Month in March (Canada celebrates it in October), and March 8 marks International Women’s Day, as designated by the United Nations. For its part, McGill University has utilized the month of March to showcase its accomplishments toward advancing women’s rights. This year, the university has taken the opportunity to celebrate its female deans, who lead ten of the institution’s 14 faculties. For three of these faculties, women are holding the position of dean for the first time ever.

This said, March is as much a celebration of women’s accomplishments as it is a time for reflection on the barriers, historical and present, that hinder efforts toward gender equality. While McGill focuses on celebrating its present accomplishments in women’s rights, the administration neglects to address its role in hindering gender equality efforts over the last two centuries, as well as the role McGill students and faculty have played in the victories of Canadian women.

Officially, McGill has minted itself a pioneer in championing gender equality in higher education. In the “About McGill” section of the university’s website, a featured article titled “Blazing trails: McGill’s women” recounts the history of female students at McGill. A bicentennial piece titled “Women admitted to McGill” touts McGill as the first Quebec university to admit women to its undergraduate body. On the “McGill Giving” page, the 2020 article “Did You Know? A timeline of women’s milestones at McGill” celebrates the fact that the university has “been shaped, challenged, and enriched by women through much of its history.”

It was in 1884, 63 years after the school was founded, that women were first allowed to study at McGill. The “Blazing trails” article frames 1884 as the inevitable result of the university’s liberal-minded administration and donors. Principal William Dawson, at a lecture for the Montreal Ladies’ Educational Association years prior, called the eventual admission of women “the dawn of a new education era.” It was thanks to a donation from businessman Donald Smith, later known as Lord Strathcona, that women would be allowed to attend the university, the first graduating class of whom were nicknamed the “Donaldas.”

All of these articles either omit or gloss over a crucial fact. Although female students were permitted admission, they were still segregated from men in their residences and classes. Royal Victoria College, which at that time included the Schulich School of Music, was constructed as a women’s residence and opened in 1899. The condition of women’s segregation, which McGill frames as an unfortunate but temporary circumstance, was actually a primary requirement of Smith’s endowment. Despite McGill’s supposed openness to gender equality, the Faculties of Law and Medicine were still barred to women. Furthermore, gender segregation fed into views among male students and faculty that women lacked the necessary mental fortitude to pursue higher education. This view was exemplified after Octavia Grace Ritchie, McGill’s first female valedictorian, delivered her graduation speech. Chancellor Richard Heneker of Bishop’s University asked her: “And are you not very tired?”

Some members of McGill’s faculty saw the university’s segregation policy as deeply harmful for women’s right to education. John Clark Murray, then-professor of philosophy and an advocate for co-education, publicly criticized McGill’s gender segregation policy and pushed for mixed-gender classrooms. Admission of women, to him, was just the first step toward achieving gender equality in higher education. For his comments, Murray was rebuked by Dawson, the supposed visionary in women’s rights, and “threatened with censure by McGill’s board of governors” who were afraid of jeopardizing Smith’s and other donors’ funding.

By 1889, women made up a third of McGill’s student body, and by 1917 outnumbered men in the Faculty of Arts. Nonetheless, the overturning of gender segregation would not be achieved for several decades. This decision came not as a moment of moral clarity from the McGill administration, but rather as a matter of practicality: the university did not have enough instructors to teach men and women separately. The outbreak of WWII and drafting of male students and faculty were what finally forced the university to establish a co-education system.

In the face of discrimination from McGill administration and government authorities, McGill students and faculty continued to push for women’s rights in Quebec and Canada. Octavia Grace Ritchie, previously mentioned as McGill’s first female valedictorian, was a notable suffragist and member of Montreal’s Local Council of Women. Idola St.-Jean, professor of French language at McGill, was one of the leaders of the Canadian Alliance for Women’s Vote in Quebec, and later, the first woman to run for federal office in Quebec. Women’s suffrage was achieved in Quebec on April 25, 1940, around the same time gender segregation at McGill was fully dissolved.

McGill, in only providing a partial account of its history with women’s rights, does a tremendous disservice to the struggles and sacrifices of previous generations of students and faculty who fought and continue to fight for gender equality. We, the editorial board of the Daily, believe it is crucial to learn about and preserve all facets of our history, to ensure that the injustices of yesterday do not repeat themselves tomorrow.