The legacy of the Dean of Women

Dean of Women influenced the lives of female students at Queen’s for nine decades

The Dean of Women position was discontinued in 1996.
Illustration by Julia Balakrishnan

Many visitors to the Deans of Women Tower Lounge in Ban Righ Hall miss the female portraits hanging on the wall, as their role is largely unknown on campus today.

The Dean of Women influenced the lives of female students at Queen’s to varying degrees for nine decades, from 1911-1996.

According to the Queen’s Encyclopedia, the University first allowed women to enroll in Arts and Sciences courses in 1878. The movement for a Dean of Women’s position started in the early 1900s because of the growing number of female students admitted to Queen’s—and concern about the morals and behaviour of women living in co-ed boarding houses near campus.

Female students were concerned their Dean would limit their independence, but also considered her role to be a formal acknowledgement of women’s permanent place at the institution.

In 1911, the University took the first step to addressing public concerns by hiring an Advisor to Women. A few years later, in 1918, the position was revamped and advisor Caroline McNeill became the University’s first Dean of Women.

In his Principal’s Report, then-Principal Daniel Gordon outlined the position would “be one of influence rather than authority, in which, by sympathy and counsel, not by command, she might aid the women students” in their academic and personal development.

All Deans, except Evelyn Reid in the 1970s, also held academic positions at Queen’s, in subjects of study ranging from English to Astrophysics.

When Ban Righ Hall opened in 1925, the Dean received control over the operations of the women-only residence building. For the next 35 years, she served as live-in headmistress, responsible for supervising female students and enforcing curfews, late-leaves, and visitors in the residence.

The Dean was also in charge of women who lived off-campus, enforcing a dress code—“slacks” were only permitted at breakfast—and monitoring their choice of housing. There’d be no unsupervised apartments, and no co-ed or unapproved boarding-houses. 

In the 1960s, the second wave of feminism brought the sexual revolution to North America, and swift changes to the Dean’s portfolio at Queen’s. The Dean shifted from a parental figure to a “trusted advisor” for issues affecting female students, staff, and faculty.

Dean Beatrice Bryce, who held the position from 1959-71, supported progressive change through the provision of better health counselling, birth-control advice, co-ed dining, and visitation hours for male students.

According to a 2001 report in The Journal, the Dean of Women often acted as an “anchor for the budding feminism on campus.” Dr. Elspeth Baugh—Dean from 1980-93—received particular recognition for being an advocate for structural change in University policies and attitudes. 

In 1995, in light of the lingering sense of gender exclusivity on campus, Queen’s launched an external review of all human-rights and equity matters at the request of then-Principal William Leggett.

Manager, Data and Administration Jill Christie, one of the first staff hired in the Equity Office and who worked for the first University Advisor on Equity, Mary Margaret Dauphinee, provided The Journal with a September of 1995 Journal article announcing the review.

The review responded to the “ever-evolving requirements” of achieving equity on campus, and had a number of goals which aimed to improve the “quality, efficiency and effectiveness of the operation” and take a more holistic approach to matters of campus equity.

There was significant debate around discontinuing the Dean of Women, as there were so few women in senior management. Many female faculty members advocated for greater gender awareness in the job descriptions of all administrative positions, and Leggett agreed equity would not be achieved if the task fell on the shoulders of just one person.

The findings were made available in December of 1995, revealing Queen’s had made progress on gender and equity issues, but lacked the accountability and coordination to make real change. 

Throughout this time, Leggett also commissioned an advisory committee on the office of the Dean of Women to make an internal review. They decided the position would be replaced by a new University Advisor on Equity, who’d represent the interests of all students, staff, and faculty. 

In a Senate meeting on May 23, 1996, Leggett announced the end of the Dean of Women, in favour of greater centralization of equity efforts at Queen’s. After ongoing discussion, Mary Marguerite Dauphinee was appointed as University Advisor on Equity in April of 1998. 

She told The Gazette that equity was achieving “fairness for everybody,” and warned it would require a “communal effort” and “the dedication of a lifetime.” In 2018, the Equity Office marked their 20th anniversary of continued efforts towards achieving equity on campus for all students, staff and faculty. 

While the Dean of Women’s role disappears into Queen’s history, the impact the position’s had on approaches to equity on campus is still felt in the various offices and committees that advocate on behalf of diverse student needs in the 21st century.

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