The long walk to progress

Photo: 
The JDUC’s Robert Sutherland Room (pictured) honours the University’s first black graduate.
The JDUC’s Robert Sutherland Room (pictured) honours the University’s first black graduate.
Photo: 

In the 1950s, a woman beginning her studies at Queen’s was given a candle that was supposed to foretell her future: her husband would come from the faculty whose colour was ribboned to her candle, and the number of times her candle dripped equalled the number of children she would have. The candle lighting ceremony was to new female students what the grease pole climb is to new engineering students, save the raucous crowds, the sludge and the fact that women weren’t allowed into the Faculty of Applied Science until 1942.

Although the grease pole tradition didn’t begin until 1960, men outnumbered women in the Faculty of Applied Science both then and now: in 2004 the Office of Institutional Research and Planning reported 1,855 men and 534 women enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs.

During the candle lighting ceremony, which persisted until the 1980s, a first-year student was paired with an upper-year student who acted as her mentor. The ceremony was seen as a step forward for women when it began in 1889, five years after the first women graduated from Queen’s. Beverley Baines, undergraduate chair of women’s studies, said historically women didn’t have a say in who went to university.

“In other words, men controlled access to education, which was seen as a stepping stone to a better life. Women were relegated to the margins or shut out completely,” Baines said.

Queen’s was the first university west of the Maritimes to allow women to take special English classes in 1869, a move that beat both the University of Toronto and Oxford University by ten years.

But the University’s first female student, Elizabeth de St Remy, and other women still could not take classes with men, could not earn a degree and could not officially register at the University.

By 1876, women could enroll in some courses with men, and in 1878 the University opened to women all of its courses in the Faculty of Arts and Science. The first two women to receive degrees in Ontario, Annie Fowler and Eliza Fitzgerald, graduated from Queen’s in 1884.

What appears to be an attitude of acceptance toward women—at a time when a woman wasn’t yet recognized by Canadian law as a person—still made for a tumultuous experience for female students.

A male writer in the Journal wrote in 1876: “We are confident that among people who appreciate the delicate grace and beauty of a woman’s character too much to expose it to ... [the] strife of the world, few will be found to advocate her admission to universities.”

Though women could enroll in 1880 at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kingston—a precursor to the University’s medical school

—authorities expelled them three years later.

“Queen’s was particularly hostile toward women in medical education,” said Jacalyn Duffin, history of medicine chair at the University.

“We flatter ourselves that we let them in early because Kingston, not Queen’s, hosted the first medical school for women. However, hearing of this plan [the University of Toronto] scrambled to do the same and opened its doors one day earlier—though the planning time had been shorter,” Duffin said.

The process leading to the expulsion of the women from the Royal College began in 1882, when Physiology Professor Kenneth Fenwick gave a lecture about the human larynx where he likened the pitch of a woman’s voice to an ape’s. When the few women attending his class lodged a complaint, the males in his class, including Fenwick himself, said a change to his lecture in the name of sensitivity would restrict a students’ academic freedom.

The Royal College’s authorities first backed the women, but later gave in to the men because some of the men threatened to leave the Royal College if authorities made Fenwick change his lectures.

With the help of local sympathizers, the expelled women formed the Women’s Medical College in 1883, which was first located in the West Wing of Kingston City Hall, and moved to 75 Union St in 1890. The College closed in 1894 due to low enrolment and a lack of money. Female students at Queen’s would have to wait until 1943 before they could take classes again at the Faculty of Medicine.

Duffin said 10 per cent of the Faculty of Medicine’s students were female between the Second World War and the 1960s. As of 2004, the Office of Institutional Research and Planning reported there were 384 male students and 363 female students in the Faculty. Baines said students in 2005 need to continue to discuss issues of gender equality and listen to marginalized voices.

“Feminists believe it is important to be attentive to the diverse voices of other historically disadvantaged peoples and these concerns should be factored into any such discussion,” she said.

Baines is still concerned that although the female to male ratio of the general student population both in high school and at university is relatively equal, there remains a major imbalance in the gender composition within certain faculties at the University.

“I think Queen’s took a major step forward when it appointed Dr. Hitchcock as Principal,” she said. “It is hard to believe that we had entered the 21st century before a woman became the academic leader of this otherwise significant intellectual community.”

* * *

The first move Greg Frankson made in 1996 after becoming the University’s first black AMS president was to express his disappointment in the University to then-Principal Bill Leggett because it hadn’t acknowledged one of its earliest major benefactors. “[Then-Dean of Student Affairs] Bob Crawford was on my doorstep the next morning, saying, ‘You know Greg, there’s a way of getting things done around here,’” Frankson said, laughing at his brash diplomacy.

Yet Frankson, ArtSci ’98 and Ed ’99, would join Leggett in a 1998 ceremony that officially re-named the billiards room on the second floor of the JDUC the Robert Sutherland Room, named after the 30th graduate of Queen’s and the first black university graduate in Upper Canada.

Sutherland, the man to whom Frankson was referring in his letter to Leggett, graduated from Queen’s in 1852, attended Osgoode Hall Law School and became the first black man called to the bar in Upper Canada.

“The reason why I struck the Robert Sutherland Task Force was because for more than 130 years the University had been unable to properly recognize the contributions of Robert Sutherland and by any student of colour,” Frankson said.

Not only was Sutherland involved in creating the Dialectic Society—a student organization that became the AMS in 1858—he bequeathed his estate of $12,000 to the University when he died in 1878, a grant that greatly helped the University in its financial troubles at the time.

“Pushing that issue and having the University recognize its first major benefactor was for me just the thin edge of the wedge,” Frankson said. “Students of colour are here, will always be here, and contribute significantly to the University.

And those contributions need to be valued and recognized appropriately.”

It wasn’t so at the University from 1917 to 1918. Wounded soldiers returning from the war refused to be treated by black students from the Faculty of Medicine, and officials didn’t do anything to prevent the injustice. Instead, they expelled the fifteen black students from the Caribbean, even those who weren’t yet in clinical practice. In 1918 the University’s senate supported Dean James Connell’s recommendation to re-locate the black students to cities with larger black populations. The move was only made by the Faculty of Medicine, and black students from other faculties continued their studies.

The University didn’t keep any records of the expelled students, and black students couldn’t come back to the Faculty of Medicine until the Second World War’s end. AMS President Ethan Rabidoux said Queen’s must work as a community to right the past wrongs.

“No institution is perfect, and there are certain activities that occurred in the past that should have never been allowed,” he said. “At the same time, Queen’s does have some quite remarkable stories as well.”

Rabidoux said he was inspired by the story of Alfred Bader, an Austrian Jew of Czech descent who graduated from Queen’s with a chemical engineering degree in 1945. In the 1950s, Bader went on to create a renowned chemical company in the United States and has become one of the University’s most generous benefactors. Some of his many donations to Queen’s are Herstmonceux Castle in England, which now houses the International Study Centre, and several pieces of art, including a Rembrandt.

Frankson said the University has begun to come to grips with the history of the people of colour at Queen’s, including all visible minorities.

“I think that the situation of students of colour is beyond the recruitment stage, and it becomes an issue of the treatment of students on campus,” he said.

At the same time, he said the University has a long way to go. During his time at Queen’s before his AMS presidency, he was involved with the Committee Against Ethnic and Racial Discrimination. He led protests in 1994 against posters erected around the campus by Heritage Front, a white supremacist group.

“The rights of freedom of speech trumped the right to life, liberty and security in the eyes of the administration, at least in my opinion,” Frankson said, referring to the Heritage Front posters that remained on campus until he lobbied to have them removed.

“It would be interesting today to see if the administration has moved from that position a decade ago. To defend diversity and equity requires a balancing of different types of rights within a university community. In my mind, the safety of individual must always come first,” said Frankson, who went into hiding in his girlfriend’s house for two weeks because skinheads were spotted on campus.

A spokesperson from Principal Karen Hitchcock’s office forwarded the Journal’s request for comment from Hitchcock to Vice-Principal (Advancement) George Hood, because Hitchcock is on summer holidays.

Hood said he didn’t think a situation like the Heritage Front erecting posters on campus would occur now, given the stringent federal hate crime legislation passed in the past decade that would make such postering a crime, and because the AMS regulated poster sites on campus last year.

“If it were to occur, the University would handle the challenge with its policies and engage the student body ... Something that clearly violates the standard of the University would have to be dealt with by balancing the community standard with the freedom of speech,” Hood said.

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