From silent sisterhood to outspoken alliance

The evolution of the Levana society as a refuge for minority groups

The Levana Society’s annual candle-lighting ceremony in Grant Hall.
Supplied by Queen’s Archives

There were five women in the class of 1884. While each would go on to have a prosperous career  — a writer, a medical missionary, a teacher, a professor and a doctor — their journeys were not without struggle. Their graduation marked an important moment in history and the beginning of a new era for women at Queen’s. 

The Levana Society was formed in 1889; just five years after these women were the first to receive undergraduate degrees from Queen’s. According to the Queen’s website, the society served to “promote the general interest of women at Queen’s,” acting as the University’s own, non-exclusive, women’s alliance. At this time, Levana was the only women’s society in Canada to universally accept all female students — regardless of class, race or appearance.

When Levana was founded, women were only allowed to enrol in arts programs and until 1976, they were a minority at Queen’s. “There was a feeling that women didn’t belong in university because it was outside their sphere. The attitude was that women had to be protected when they came into this environment,” Queen’s Historian Duncan McDowall told the Journal of student life at the turn of the century. 

In their search for refuge, the Levana Society was born as a safe space for women. During the peak of Levana’s popularity, the notion that men and women were to inhabit parallel and distinct social spheres was prevalent on Queen’s campus. Before second-wave feminism pushed for the spheres to merge, Levana prepared women for “societal life” through formal dances, tea parties and beauty contests. Other activities such as basketball and hockey tournaments allowed women to explore athletics while still in a social environment.

The Levana constitution stated its primary mission as “to serve as a bond of union between all the women at the university,” and to prepare young women for their role in society beyond the ivy-covered walls of Queen’s. McDowall described the contrasting spheres, “The male sphere was considered more aggressive, outgoing and worldly and the feminine one was introverted, maternal and nurturing.”

Over time, Levana developed their own set of well-known rituals and traditions that persisted well into the 1960s. 

Among the most well-known of their rites of passage was the annual candle-lighting ceremony that took place during Frosh week. Reminiscent of sorority initiation proceedings, the female frosh — better known as “freshettes” within the group  —  were led to a dimly lit and carefully locked Grant Hall to be introduced to second year society members. 

At the finale of the ceremony, the graduating Levana members passed their uniforms to the newcomers, along with a ceremonial flame transfer. Speaking volumes about the roles women were expected to fill in society, there were certain implications of the wax drippings off of their candles and onto the tri-colour ribbon. Although not officially in the rules of Levana, the University archives say that whichever coloured ribbon the drippings fell upon predicted their husband’s career (doctor, engineer, arts student), as well as the number of children they would bear. 

“The candle-lighting ceremony looked very out of date, and it had that fertility element,” McDowall said of Levana’s most famous, yet most outdated practice. 

According to McDowall, there were no disqualifying factors for entry into the society. “[Levana] defended their interest, gave them a sense of confidence and purpose in this world. Where when they looked out the window, all they saw were men.” McDowall understands the original role of the Levana Society to women at Queen’s as “giving women a rich feminist, associational life.”

In spite of their distinct sphere removed from the Old Arts Society — which only allowed men as members — in 1933 they formed an Arts-Levana-Theology coalition during the AMS election. 

The coalition formed in response to two fraternities (both formed in the 1920s), which Levana and the Old Arts Society both felt that fostered exclusivity.

McDowall explained Levana’s view on sororities. “You would have a splintering of males and females into groups that competed and were not necessarily dedicated to the overall rights of women. They feared if sororities came, they would peel women off into class structure of women at Queen’s, and most people don’t like that distinction.”

The coalition sponsored an open meeting, attended by around 1000 students where the motion to deny was passed by vote. In 1934, the Medical fraternity formally refuted the ban but were ultimately defeated in AMS Court later that year.  

The end of the 1950s saw a shift in attitudes about women both on and off campus. The beginnings of second-wave feminism — focusing on workplace equality and reproductive rights — were beginning to appear through several outspoken students.

In 1958, the editor of the Journal, Krista Maeots was one of the more vocal women of the second wave of feminists at Queen’s. Alongside Bronwen Wallace  —  who would later become a well-known writer and poet — Maeots was among the first to raise questions about the role of Levana in the age of equality.

The effects were especially palpable in the late sixties, when several outspoken feminists signed up to participate in a Levana beauty pageant. “They showed up in clown noses and outlandish outfits and  everyone else was in prom dresses and heels. It was sort of ‘in your face,’” McDowall said of the spectacle.

With public funding beginning to flow into Canadian universities due to the post-war economy, Queen’s more than tripled its enrollment before the mid-1970s. Enrollment was well above 10,000 students and attitudes about women were rapidly changing.

“Levana looked like an anachronism,” McDowall said of the push-back that came along with the second wave of feminism. “[Women] didn’t want to eat dinner alone and be told how to dress.”

In 1968, Levana had a referendum on whether or not they wished to end their existence and join the Arts Society.  According to McDowall, members pushed toward the direction of a merge with the Arts Society because the rituals associated with Levana were offensive to the modern woman. 

Although the sorority culture coined by Levana was beginning to fade, the fight for equality had just begun. The Dean of Women was appointed in 1968  —  a position whose place was hotly debated on campus until the 1990s. While the job description changed from designing the women’s dress code and advising them on their decorum to a more modern consultative position for women’s issues, having a Dean of Women was determined to be constitutionally irrelevant in the 1990s. 

“There was a decorum to being a woman at Queen’s, and it was about to end. It was a bit like affirmative action. Of course, many women felt this was a sort of patronising maternalism,” McDowall said of the general student reactions to continued separation between the sexes that persisted until 1992.

While Queen’s may be commonplace in that they once had a Dean of Women, they were the only Canadian university to have a dedicated society for all women. From 1889 until 1968, from the moment you arrived on campus, as long as you were a female student, you were a member of Levana. 

In 1975, the Women’s Centre (WC) at Queen’s was founded to take on female interest on the rapidly evolving Queen’s campus. The WC operated out of the Grey House on Bader Lane, acting as a safe space for women. Eventually, they evolved into the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre (LGAC) and have since taken up a parallel but distinct role on campus.

Self described as an “anti-oppression” group, the LGAC has also taken up residence in the Grey House and taken on the Levana name, holding weekly office hours, promoting access, student produced zines, and acting as a safe space for anyone who might not feel welcome on campus. 

According to the LGAC’s mandate, their purpose includes “organizing ongoing programming and actions to challenge systems of oppression (e.g. sexism, transphobia, etc.) and advocate for gender justice and diversity.” However, their mandate extends beyond everyday inclusivity and weekly lunch time chats with predetermined topics of discussion for hashing out. 

The LGAC prides itself on standing up to oppression, and giving it a voice. For current LGAC board member Marion Gonsalves ArtSci ’19, the group helped her and her housemates during the aftermath of the controversial costume party in 2016.

“That was a really distressing event and I felt the need to get involved. The university’s reaction was distressing, and it felt like abandonment on an institutional level,” she said. “For me getting involved, in an unofficial capacity — since I never filled out a volunteer application — was a way for me to cope with that, and a way for me to feel like I had a sense of control in this situation.”

The evolution of Levana has been a catalyst for increased acceptance, and, more importantly, comfort for minority groups. While the role of women is still evolving on a global scale, Levana has stood the test of time. 

In the historic 128-year parallel between the original women’s society in 1889 and the gender advocacy centre in 2017, one thing is startlingly clear; minority students have always had a sanctuary in Levana. 


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