Are you going to teach crochet?
That was the question that a Senate member at Concordia University (then Sir George Williams) asked Greta Hofmann Nemiroff when Women’s Studies was being presented. “I replied to him: ‘no, but if I did crochet, I would be happy to teach you,’” she said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Women’s Studies course at a university in Canada. Concordia and a handful of other Canadian universities offered the first classes in the wake of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1968*.
Women’s Studies at Dawson
Greta was a founder of Women’s Studies at Concordia and of the Women’s Studies thematic program at Dawson College in 1982.
Greta taught English and Humanities at Dawson from 1973 until 2015, and especially enjoyed teaching at Dawson’s New School, which she has called the “love of her life.”
Greta recalled the early years of Women’s Studies when she was back at Dawson College March 6 to participate in a panel discussion moderated by Pat Romano with fellow Women’s Studies academics Shree Mulay (Memorial University) and Alanna Thain (McGill University) about the past, present and future of Women’s and Gender Studies at the College and beyond.
Speaking to Dawson Communications after the panel, Greta recounted a brief history of Women’s Studies at Dawson:
“I think that during the first year of Dawson, 1969-70, there was a Women’s Studies course offered in the winter semester. There were Women’s Studies courses taught at the various Dawson campuses, but I really think the courses were brought together at Dawson after 1988 when we all gathered at the Atwater Campus. Before then, Women’s Studies were taught mainly under the aegis of English and Humanities.”
You’re a woman
During the panel, Greta shared an incident that happened to her as a graduate student. When Greta was pursuing her master’s degree at Boston University in 1959, she applied for and did not receive a graduate assistantship despite being in the 95th percentile in the graduate record examinations (GRE’s). “My classmate, a farm boy from Minnesota who was in the 30th percentile, received an assistantship. When I spoke to the department chair about this inequity, he said: ‘of course you didn’t get it, you’re a woman. We don’t want people to think that English literature is effeminate.’ This had such an impact on me. It woke me up to the sexism in academia, even though I did not have a word for it at the time.”
Shree shared that her grandmother was widowed at a young age with three children. “My mother also lost her husband at a young age,” she said. “Her advantage was that she had an education. Women are strong and resilient.”
Ripping off Polytechnique ribbon
The Polytechnique massacre happened during Alanna’s last year of high school and was devastating for her. She recalled a male teacher pulling off her Polytechnique remembrance ribbon, “as an intense act of symbolic violence.”
The field of Cinema emerged at the same time as Women’s Studies, Alanna observed. “It has been feminist from the beginning. The most read article is by a woman, Laura Mulvey. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was written when she was young.”
Academic discussion while caring for babies
Greta recalled a conversation with Christine Allen, who was the co-founder of Women’s Studies at Concordia. They had both recently had babies and were trying to have an academic conversation while constantly being interrupted. “I thought it was amazing that we were trying to have this conversation. I said to her: ‘we should have a course about ourselves!’ In 1968, we made the proposal for the first university Women’s Studies course in Canada, which was offered in the fall of1970 at Sir George Williams.”
Women’s issues were in the air at the time. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women was the first Royal Commission that was televised. The commissioners travelled across the country to meet women and the concerns of women were a popular topic of conversation. Greta read all the documents in the National Archives in Ottawa. “At that time, there were no words to describe sexual harassment,” she said. “When you can’t name something, it is not actionable.”
Shree spoke of the great changes in the world and in the field in just 50 years. “Women’s Studies is not completely focused on women now. There is a broader discussion and an emphasis on sexuality. There have been gains and losses.”
Shifting to greater inclusion
Alanna spoke to this shift and said that the wider field is more inclusive and includes gender, sexuality, diversity. “Oppressions are interlocked,” she said, adding later that social justice is the direction of the field.
The topics of discussion during the panel at Dawson included Women’s Studies in institutions, women’s groups, academics and activism, the influence of students, and unpaid work by women.
Greta cautioned that “we cannot let go of women who see themselves as ordinary women. They are violated in many ways, murdered, excluded. A big insight of feminism is that there is no ordinary woman, although huge numbers of women perceive themselves as ordinary women. Misogyny has an impact on everyone.”
Why pursue Women’s Studies?
A student at the panel discussion mentioned that her parents wondered why she wants to pursue Women’s Studies. The answers came from the panel: “it is interdisciplinary, offers so many perspectives, and the knowledge one gains is rich and varied. You will learn to stand your ground and really understand the way the world works.”
According to Greta, the biggest challenge for feminism today is that the patriarchy is still alive and well. “We need to have patience and strategy,” Greta insisted. “Feminism is not an event; it is a process. There is much work to be done and an enormous amount of organization to do.”
*Background on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women from the Canadian Encyclopedia: “The commission attracted considerable interest, reviewing 468 briefs and receiving over 1,000 letters of opinion and additional testimony, all of which confirmed the widespread problems faced by women in Canadian society.
“The commission’s 488-page report contained 167 recommendations to the federal government on such issues as pay equity, the establishment of a maternity leave program and national child care policy, birth control and abortion rights, family law reform, education and women’s access to managerial positions, part-time work and alimony. A large section also addressed issues specific to Aboriginal women and the Indian Act. All of these recommendations were based on the core principle that equality between men and women in Canada was possible, desirable and ethically necessary.”