Feminist Psychology in Canada: Early Days

Article excerpt

In this paper I discuss some of the events that marked the beginnings of feminist psychology in Canada - for example, the Underground Symposium, the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) Task Force on the Status of Women in Canadian Psychology, the founding of the CPA Interest Group on Women and Psychology, the implementation of an Institute on Women and Psychology, and the establishment of the CPA Status of Women Committee. Analogous structures and events within the American Psychological Association (APA) are described. The paper concludes with some personal speculations about the future of feminist psychology. A paper by Pyke and Greenglass (1997), presented at the International Congress of Psychology in Montreal in 1996, also explored much of this early history. From a somewhat different perspective, Stark (2000) also discussed certain aspects of the development in Canada of women's historic involvement in and contributions to the discipline.

Psychology emerged as a separate and distinct discipline in Canada in the 1920s with the establishment of autonomous departments at the University of Toronto and McGill University (de la Cour, 1987; Wright & Myers, 1982). It has been reported that women were well represented in the early days both in the student body and among faculty (de la Cour, 1987). However, the absolute numbers were very low. Mary Wright (1974) estimates that in 1938, there were only about 53 psychologists in the whole country, of which perhaps no more than six or seven were women.

The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) was founded in 1939 (Ferguson, 1992). Of the 38 founding members (Adair, Paivio, & Ritchie, 1996), only 6 (17%) were women (de la Cour, 1987). This is in marked contract to the robust membership of 3,100 in APA in 1940 (Hogan & Sexton, 1991). It has been widely believed and generally accepted that the organization was created so psychologists might contribute more effectively to the war effort (Ferguson, 1992; Vipond & Richert, 1977; Wright, 1974; Wright & Myers, 1982). However, Kathy Dzinas (1997), on the basis of a rigorous re-examination of the relevant literature and documentation, argues that there is no evidentiary support for these claims. Regardless of the motivation for establishing CPA, it seems clear that a primary focus of the fledgling organization was directed toward activities relevant to the war effort such as the selection and training of military personnel. Interestingly enough, there is little mention of the involvement of women psychologists in most accounts of these events. Nevertheless, women did contribute significantly through their provision of services relevant to working mothers and their children. The training of qualified personnel to staff day care centres for the children of women working in factories was one such significant and important contribution (de la Cour, 1987; Wright, 1974). Among the stimuli for the founding of the National Council of Women Psychologists in the United States was the unwillingness of APA to appoint women to their Emergency Committee - a committee intended to coordinate the activities of psychologists in the event of American involvement in World War II (Walsh, 1985).

Mary Wright, who was a graduate student at the University of Toronto during the war, tells us that at that time equality of the sexes was taken for granted and all students, regardless of gender, were treated alike (Wright, 1992). de la Cour supports Wright's contention when she says, "Far from occupying a marginal existence, Toronto's women psychologists were a major and vital component of the profession from 1920 to 1945" (p. 44). What were the experiences of these pioneering women? Wright (1992) provides biographical notes on 10 women who obtained Ph Ds from the University of Toronto between 1936 and 1949, a most accomplished and distinguished group. A comparison of the careers of seven women and seven male academics from this group of graduates reveals that they did not differ in academic rank; six in each group attained full professor status. …

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