Laurel Sefton MacDowell

Title text


Laurel MacDowellLaurel Sefton MacDowell is a professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her interests are in Canadian working class and North American environmental history. She is the author of Remember Kirkland Lake: The Gold Miners’ Strike 1941-42An Environmental History of Canada, and Renegade Lawyer: The Life of J.L. Cohen, which received the Floyd Chalmers’ prize in Ontario history from the Champlain Society.


During her undergraduate years at U of T, Laurel was a Students’ Administrative Council (SAC) rep and was active in the student movement. After graduating with an honours BA in Modern History in 1969, she did a Master’s degree in International History at the London School of Economics in the UK. Back in Toronto, she worked for a year and then began a Ph.D in Canadian History and Industrial Relations.


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Hart House 1965–1969
  • Students’ Administrative Council Representative
  • Protested against the “men only” rule


“I think it’s important for people to understand what Hart House was originally—essentially a men’s club. And that had, I think, a profound effect on young men. They felt very privileged. They had a place to go to eat, and have discussions and to do their extra-curricular activities. And there wasn’t an equivalent place for women. The fact that Hart House has now evolved so that it’s now available for all of the undergraduates, graduates and professors is progress.


“A lot of really important things take place in your undergraduate years. It’s a formative period. It’s really good for all undergraduates and graduate students to be in an atmosphere where they have exposure to what the institution’s offering, and I think it makes for better students because it provides a place for intellectual discussion and many activities that are important. So it’s great that Hart House is the way it is now.


“Occasionally, I’ll meet colleagues or friends at the Gallery Grill, and in the process of walking through the building, I’ll see the students walking through and doing their various activities. It’s just a much more open feeling. Whereas when I was 20 years old, I was literally excluded from that.


Infiltrating the Arbor Room

“I remember back in January 1967, we went into the Arbor Room—the lunchroom, much as it is today. There were three of us: Jennifer Penny, Laurel Limpus and me. We were on the SAC and other committees, so we were all sort of politicized. I must have been in my third year. We walked in as a group with some male students. We weren’t disguised as men. We were just wearing our regular outfits and we had bagged lunches. We went to the table that some guys were holding for us, and basically, there was a bit of an uproar. Some of the male students in the room started throwing their lunch bags and empty milk cartons at us!


“The assistant warden of Hart House came down and said that even though we were ‘misguided’ in being there, nevertheless the men at Hart House should ‘extend common courtesy’ to them. Some of the men yelled, ‘Out! Out!’ but the warden said that we would not be forcibly ejected. An impromptu discussion about the place of women in Hart House took place so we considered the sit-in a success.


“It really did get quite a bit of press. There were articles about it in The Varsity and The Globe and Mail.


The George Ignatieff Debate

“It seemed to me to be kind of—silly—that women couldn’t go into Hart House. I remember more about the debate the following week. It was kind of a prestigious event with George Ignatieff, our ambassador to the United Nations, was involved in the event.


“At that time I was living in residence, and I had gone out with some girlfriends for supper. And they asked, ‘So what are you doing now?’ And I said ‘Oh, I’m just going to go back to my room and study.’ I was genuinely planning to do that, but as soon as I got back to my room, Andy Szende phoned and said, ‘I want you to come over and go into the Debates Room.’ He was the editor of The Varsity, and he may have been one of the people who had been talking to Hart House trying to negotiate a change to the no-women policy of Hart House. They were getting nowhere because of Vincent Massey’s will that said the building must be restricted to men only. The will was eventually broken, but at that time, it was not really contemplated. So I guess they decided that one way to push the talks was to stage these actions.


“Women were allowed in the Debates Room for events, but they had to sit in the gallery. There’s a little room just off the Debates Room and somehow Andy was able to get us in there. This time there were five of us—we three from the Arbor Room incident and Johanna Baltrusaitis and Joan Anderson. They had some guys go and hold seats for us, and just as the Debates Room filled up, the door of the little room opened and we walked in and sat down. The speaker that evening welcomed its ‘first female guests’ pointed out that Hart House was restricted to men only and asked us to leave. We didn’t.


“They decided not to challenge us, or to try and throw us out. I mean that would have been pretty stupid, actually. To manhandle a group of undergraduate women wouldn’t have been a good idea. The women in the gallery cheered as we entered the room; some men on the floor shouted, ‘Out!’ We just went into the debate, and listened to the questions and answers. When it was over we just left, but again, there was a lot of publicity in all of the papers.


“The aftermath of this was that the next morning I walked in to breakfast at my residence, and some of the women hissed at me. And when I joined the people that I usually had breakfast with, they looked at me and said, ‘You told us you were going home to do your studying.’ So my friends were a bit annoyed because they thought I’d been lying to them, which of course I wasn’t. My plans had changed.  And the other women, I guess they thought it was very unfeminine and unladylike and blah blah blah.”


On Feminism

“At that age, I wouldn’t have defined myself as a feminist because I hadn’t really been tested, although I certainly thought women should have equal opportunities. I hadn’t worked much in the labour force, so I didn’t see that women were not being treated equally. So it was all very intellectual for me. But there was a woman who used to be an executive assistant in the SAC office, and she was very much a feminist. And even though I’d be going into the executive meetings and talking away and had a fairly prominent role in SAC at that time, she’s the one who underlined that it’s harder for women than for men. But at that time, it wasn’t my experience. Most of my friends were men because I was in history and political science—programs that were mostly men—and the people I was conversing with were men. So my thinking was political; that it was time for women to do more things and be treated better.


“A soon as I hit the labour market, I realized that women weren’t paid the same or treated the same. Sometimes I worked at jobs where women hadn’t been hired before. So it was a struggle. And then I was also juggling a family and getting my PhD. Initially, when I was hired at U of T, I think there were only two or three women, and I don’t think the men were particularly happy about it. So, that’s rather different from today. The university had been very much a place of male culture. My experience of juggling family and career, eventually separating from my husband, so I was a single mother for a few years, and going through a very rough time financially, helped me understand the situation of women in society better. So, by experience, I would describe myself as a feminist.”


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