Where did all the feminism go?

Tracing Queen’s sexual and gender politics back to the seventies and eighties, a golden age of campus activism

Photo: 

Second-wave feminist issues, like birth control and abortion, don’t have the same visibility on campus today that they had in the 70s.

Last week, Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national anti-abortion organization held protests across Canada—including here on Queen’s campus. The event went unreported by media in Kingston, and only saw one recently-formed campus group respond.

Meghan Engbretson, ArtSci ’11, MSc ’13, and current study coordinator at the Canadian Cancer Trials Group, founded Voice for Choice, a pro-choice advocacy group, this September because she couldn’t find one at Queen’s or in the Kingston community.

Engbretson organized a counter-demonstration to CLC’s Oct. 6 anti-abortion protest. She told The Journal in an interview there were roughly 40 anti-abortion and around 20 pro-choice protestors.

Compare this to the 700-strong pro-choice march of 1989 at Queen’s. The decline in a vibrant, visible, and popular conversation about second-wave feminist issues on campus is a confronting reality.

*** 

Throughout its history, The Journal has witnessed and documented the Queen’s community, tracing campus movements and conversations through the years.

A broad review of The Journal through the 60s, 70s, and 80s illustrates the gradual dissolution of an active campus conversation about sexual and gender politics.

From the late 60s until the late 80s, issues of The Journal were inundated with articles about abortion, birth control, gender equality, and sexual assault. Today’s issues don’t see this at the same scale.

At the heart of this surge was the emergence of second-wave feminism—a movement that came to prominence in the 70s and 80s. It included fighting for birth control, reproductive rights, and an end to violence against women.

In 1969, “therapeutic” abortion was decriminalized in Canada, meaning women could have an abortion on the condition that a panel of three doctors, often all men, certified the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s physical or mental health.

Birth control was also legalized in 1969. Until then, it was illegal to sell or provide information on birth control to prevent conception.

Although these events represented a monumental shift, the attitude towards these issues didn’t change overnight—especially at conservative-leaning institutions like Queen’s and the University of Toronto, according to Queen’s professor Steven Maynard, who specializes in the history of sexuality.

The Nov. 4, 1971 issue of The Journal reported that “Six thousand copies of the ‘McGill birth control handbook’ were distributed on campus [that] year.” An earlier edition of the handbook had been distributed at Queen’s two years prior.

Simply titled Birth Control Handbook, it discussed—in detail considered explicit at the time—male and female anatomy, sexual intercourse, oral contraceptive, intrauterine devices (IUD), and abortion.

“It was pretty explosive,” Maynard told The Journal, “But it published for years, they kept publishing and making new editions because there was such a demand for it.”

The popularity of the McGill handbook at other universities demonstrated students exchanging information across campuses. Because of the rigidity of university administrations at the time, students started taking things into their own hands.

“Young women were just really tired of not having access to information services,” Maynard said. “They demanded it and they created it themselves.”

***

Student-led second-wave feminism had its own moment at Queen’s.

Mary Ellen Marus, a third-year arts student, was the first to propose a campus birth control centre in October 1971. In November, The Journal reported Marus circulated a questionnaire to gauge students’ knowledge about contraception and abortion facilities. The survey also asked students whether an information centre was a good idea.

After the survey results were returned, more than 80 students signed up to help establish the centre. Less than a week later, advertisements for the “Birth Control and Abortion Information and Referral Centre” started to regularly appear in The Journal.

Located at 165 University Ave., the Centre’s mandate was to “centralize any and all information regarding birth control and abortion” among other issues.

At the time, because only “therapeutic” abortion was available, the centre provided information on non-abortion approaches to unwanted pregnancy as well as resources to support young mothers. Marus described it as “a place where people can drop in to talk, be comforted, or given direction if they need it.”

The centre became sponsored by the AMS, but its roots are in student-led activism. During its operation, the Centre at 165 University Ave. maintained the notion of being for the students, by the students.

***

It’s not as though these services aren’t here at Queen’s today. But back then, issues of women’s sexual health had more visibility—even a physical presence on campus. This visibility was fueled by a vibrant campus-wide engagement in sexual and gender politics and solutions to lack of awareness came from the student body.                                                               

“Sexual politics was a hot topic, and they made it so,” Maynard said. “They’re the ones who created the movement, provided the services. Not that students don't do those kinds of things now … but you know, I can't help but look at that moment in the 1970s and just kind of go, wow, they were really interested in politicizing and making visible issues of sexuality that were important to Queen students.”

A Journal article published in September 1972—almost a year after the student-led information centre was established—read, “[t]he opening of the centre marked the largest step taken to acknowledge the situation and provoke the necessary action.”

Though birth control was legalized in 1969, articles and letters to the editor published in The Journal at the time continued to criticize the lack of birth control research and court rulings on prosecuting for abortion.

One anonymous letter from the February 1, 1972 issue concluded: “Better methods than even the Pill, with all its attendant negative side effects, must be made 100 percent available.”

“Men have always dominated the research world. If they don’t like abortions either, they should find better ways of preventing pregnancies. They made the laws that kept birth control information and devices from people; they should change the laws. Until then they should quit being holier than thou.”

A Feb. 18, 1972 issue featured a full-page comic criticizing abortion stigma in the healthcare system—paired with an article titled “Having an abortion here” which talks the reader through the abortion committee process at KGH and what to expect from different hospitals in the area.

***

The second-wave feminist movement and its criticism of the status quo continued with momentum into the 80s.

Abortion became fully legalized in 1988, after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the abortion law was unconstitutional in R. v. Morgentaler. The Journal first reported on the campaign for the repeal of federal abortion laws as early as 1972. 

Engagement with the issue didn’t die down following the ruling.

In a Feb. 17, 1989 letter to the editor published by The Journal, three students condemned a display in Douglas Library by Queen’s Alive, a campus anti-abortion group. “We look forward to the day when women will no longer have to fight for our already won right to access safe, medical abortions. But for now, it appears as if we must go to battle again.”

The Douglas Library display generated opinion pieces and multiple letters to the editor each issue for several weeks, culminating in a full-page informational spread titled “The Abortion Debate,” published on March 17, 1989.

On Oct. 14, 1989, more than 700 protestors marched through downtown Kingston as part of the National Day of Action for Abortion. According to The Journal, protestors chanted and carried signs: “Don’t Lose the Right to Choose!”

The Journal reported Maynard, in his third year of doctoral studies at the time of the march, was a speaker at the rally. He was quoted as saying: “The same law that restricts women’s right to abortion is the same government that restricts access to AIDS medication,’ … ‘We demand that the state keep its laws off all our bodies.”

***

Alongside the abortion issue, campaigns to end violence against women rose to prominence and became more visible in the community.

In September 1988, the annual Take Back the Night protest was marked by two arrests when protestors refused to stop chanting the line: “No more patriarchy, no more shit.” Following the arrests, women surrounded a police car, rocking it and chanting: “Serve and protect whom?”

Pamela Cross, now a feminist lawyer in Kingston, was a law student at Queen’s in the late 1980s. In an email to The Journal, she recalled this time as being “at a high-water mark in terms of support for ending sexual violence against women.”

Cross, like Maynard, attended the Kingston pro-choice rally of 1989. 

“It was, as I think it remains, quite a conservative university,” wrote Cross, “but during my time there, there was a strong core of feminists who were willing to push the limits and challenge the misogyny of the University's structure and administration as well as of the student body.”

Second-wave feminism moves away from its peak after the 80s, and student engagement with feminist issues in The Journal gradually ebbs away.

***

While feminism is still present on campus in the form of numerous student organizations whose contributions shouldn’t be diminished, it doesn’t have the same visibility and activist energy as it did on campus forty years ago.

Maynard thinks the answer comes down to second-wave feminism.

“It seemed in the 70s to be a more organic part of student life and student politics,” said Maynard. “Second-wave feminism forced the issues of birth control, of abortion, on many university campuses like Queen’s, against intransigent administrations that said no, initially.”

On campus, the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre champions intersectional feminism as an evolution from the second wave. The organization was established as the Women’s Centre in 1975 when it was a women-only space, but opened itself up to gender empowerment for those of any or no gender after seeing a need for more inclusivity.

Marion Gonsalves, ArtSci ’19—former member of the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre—told The Journal she sees the change in the Centre’s mandate as a positive move away from second-wave feminism towards intersectionality and trans-positive feminism.

“The campus is very reactive,” Gonsalves said. “[But] we’re reacting to the symptoms of a larger disease that this campus is facing.”

However, some issues—like abortion—apparently receive little to no reaction on campus.

This decline in engagement, represented by the lack of a larger response to last week’s anti-abortion demonstration, Maynard, Engbretson, and Gonsalves all attribute this, in some way, to a false sense of security surrounding second-wave feminist issues.

Abortion and birth control’s respective legalizations are recent history and the result of dedicated second-wave feminism and campus mobilization—but as Maynard reminds us, “that can be undone.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.