Feminist Activism at a Canadian University

By Staggenborg, Suzanne | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Feminist Activism at a Canadian University


Staggenborg, Suzanne, Resources for Feminist Research


This paper examines the growth of feminism at McGill University and the creation of women's studies and a women's research centre, benefits for women faculty, staff and students, and changes in campus culture. The paper focuses on the activities of faculty and staff, while recognizing the importance of student activism as well. Opportunities for activism came from the larger women's movement and national organizations together with competitive pressures. Activists used the decentralized structure and interactional settings of the university to establish organizational habitats and achieve real changes despite strategic constraints and some fading of feminism over time.

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Social movements arise within many organizations and institutions, including corporations, militaries, religions, government agencies, and universities (Davis et al., 2005; Katzenstein, 1998; Raeburn, 2004; Santoro and McGuire, 1997; Zald and Berger, 1978). Within universities, faculty, staff and students have organized to challenge sexist practices, advocate for employment and pay equity, institute day care centres and maternity leaves, and lobby for the creation of women's studies programs, research centres, and governing committees. Student feminist groups have challenged student governments, organized services for women, held educational events, and engaged in collective action, both on and off campus. Universities have helped to spawn and sustain feminist activities, and feminists have transformed universities in important ways. Nevertheless, feminists are often marginalized within universities and have difficulty maintaining institutional footholds.

In this paper, 1 examine how activists attempted to implement feminist changes at McGill, showing both how they succeeded and how they were limited in their efforts. The paper focuses on the actions of faculty and staff, aided by students, who worked through the institutional structures of the university to create change. The protest activities of student groups are also important, and these activities are noted in my account, but a full treatment of student feminist groups is beyond the scope of the paper, given its focus on the more institutionalized forms of action often neglected in accounts of social movements. I begin by discussing theoretical ideas and findings about movements within institutions, including work on feminism within institutions. Next, I provide a brief history of feminist activity at McGill and several of its outcomes. (1) I then draw on this account to examine how the strategies of activists and the accomplishments and limitations of the movement result from external support and competitive pressures and internal organizational culture, structures and opportunities.

Movements within Organizations and Institutions

Movements within organizations and institutions are affected by both external forces and internal organizational dynamics. Widespread social and cultural changes, such as the influx of women into the work force and changes in acceptable language and interactions related to gender, together with changes in government policies, such as affirmative action and pay equity laws, raise consciousness among activists within organizations and help them to force changes in their institutions. Movements within institutions gain legitimacy when their goals are endorsed by other social institutions, governments, or large-scale social movements. The rise of a social movement outside of an institution increases the likelihood that an internal movement will also emerge because organizational participants are often affected by larger social movements and because organizations, whatever their intentions, are likely to recruit movement sympathizers at times when critical masses are influenced by the movement (Zald and Berger, 1978, p. 846). Movement activists within organizations often receive support from external organizations and movements, and they gain information and strategic advice from outsiders when they participate in other organizations. …

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