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Marsden pens book on women’s fight for equality in Canada

Former York president still active in academe.

By HARRIET EISENKRAFT | AUG 22 2012

Lorna Marsden could have rested on her many laurels when she finished a 10-year term as president of York University in 2007. Instead, she went back into the classroom and got busy writing a book on social change, which is one of her main interests, both academically and as an activist.

With decades of scholarly and administrative work at several postsecondary institutions, including presidencies of two universities, and an Order of Canada among her myriad awards, the sociologist and former senator (yes, that too, appointed by Pierre Trudeau) says she was inspired by the needs of her “very bright students” to provide context on the subject of feminism.
The result: Canadian Women and the Struggle for Equality (Oxford University Press), released this past May. “This is not a book of history, [it’s] about how the forces that emerged from our history affect the social dilemmas faced by equality seekers,” says Dr. Marsden.

To that end, the book examines the ways in which events such as world wars, demographic shifts and economic cycles have influenced women’s status. Dr. Marsden says she was intrigued by certain dynamics of change here: “sociologically, how women won rights in Canada is very different [than other countries, such as the U.S and England.] They seized the day… mainly by peaceful means.”

The book takes a narrative tour through 150 years of transformation, comparing and contrasting the lives of three generations of women. She says that “there have been enormous shifts in the way all Canadians see women in society.” The book brings into relief the differences in educational participation rates for females, with Dr. Marsden noting: “I’m not alone in thinking that the way postsecondary education has developed in Canada has been fundamental to change. It used to be for an elite, then it became a source of opportunity. Now, it’s a necessity.”

Serving for a total of 15 years in a row as president – five years at Wilfrid Laurier University (1992-1997) and then 10 at York (1997-2007), Dr. Marsden recalls funding cuts and class size increases, as well as two very different campus cultures. She enjoyed both, she says. When it comes to the importance of more women in both senior administrative roles and research roles, she says she “starts from the premise of equality.” She cites a need for “constructing structural conditions” to facilitate the entry of the best and brightest of both genders.

Dr. Marsden studied documents about Confederation before she started writing. The book analyzes federal-provincial divisions of powers and how the power division affected equality rights, sometimes negatively. She mentions differing systems of daycare across the country and says the lack of spaces and disparate attitudes on this issue remain a barrier for women. “Childcare is an unfinished battle,” she says.

She is now completing a turn chairing a panel on women in research for the Council of Canadian Academies. This investigation, prompted by the lack of any female representation in recent awards of Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs), will release its findings in late 2012. Dr. Marsden holds positions on many non-profit and corporate boards and committees, and in September she also will be teaching Canadian Society at York.

Having engaged in the fight for women’s rights on many fronts, as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women from 1975-1977 and also through her involvement in politics, Dr. Marsden has been part of the history she teaches to modern students. When asked if her students are impressed, she laughs, citing her own indifference to Second World War veterans who taught in her high school classrooms. And, she notes, despite the fact that young people “may not be interested in the course you’re teaching, they are always interested in something.” That continues to delight Dr. Marsden today.

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