The timing of University Archivist David Mawhinney’s presentation, entitled Women in the Class of 1867, was not coincidental, given that last week was dedicated to the acknowledgement of women’s leadership. Mawhinney presented on the history of Mount Allison’s female student body.
The presentation shed light on the lives of women while they attended Mt. A, a male-dominated Christian institution. The rules and regulations imposed upon female students reveal the misogynistic values of the late-nineteenth century.
For instance, women were barred from pursuing the same degrees as men. As “mistresses of the liberal arts,” they were denied the freedom to attend the same university courses as men.
In addition, female students were subject to moral and religious disciplinary regulations. “The aim of the [women’s] instruction was to focus on the Christian principles cherished by every denomination,” Mawhinney said, elaborating on the values instilled by the church.
Mt. A’s women’s academy was created because of the money it received from the church. “The resolution was based solely on religion and philosophy,” Mawhinney said. “It was firmly rooted in the belief that if women were educated in the faith, they would raise their own family with [interests] of the church.” The resulting women’s academy prioritized traditionally feminine roles.
Women were expected to attend bible studies and were assigned essays on theological themes. In Mawhinney’s opinion, these expectations were intended to encourage debate and critical thought.
A daily record of attendance was kept and demerit points were given for infractions. The women’s daily schedules were restricted. The “riser,” essentially a human alarm clock, had the task of walking the halls swinging a bell and waking students up to begin their daily routine: morning classes, prayer, a walk, more classes, evening study, a meal, visiting hours and bed. Saturdays were designated cleaning days for some, while others were sent to shop for goods approved by the principal.
Mawhinney expressed that women students had to undergo intensely time-oriented regimes in order to get their degrees. “As a young woman in the 1860s, you would have to resolve yourself to accept these rules and take on a rigorous few years of study in order to receive your mistress of liberal arts.”
In spite of the obstacles imposed on them, the women invented creative ways to dodge the rules. For example, the designated shoppers would give unapproved lists to a man whom they would pay to pick up restricted items.
During visiting hours, women would get around rules by inviting their “cousins” or “brothers” into the women’s-only academy housing. In an anecdote, Mawhinney explained that women were not to smoke indoors, but on one occasion, two women evaded this restriction by hoisting one another out the window.
An audience member commented that being white and from upper-class families, along with having access to an academic institution, afforded the five women of the graduating class of 1867 privilege.
Mawhinney speculated that it is possible that women of colour attended the academy, but there would have been a sense of secrecy surrounding their attendance.
To properly commemorate the many achievements of women, it is important to acknowledge the lack of intersectionality that persists in Canada. It was not until the question period that intersectionality was addressed, indicating our continued failure to recognize the exclusion of marginalized women.
From our 21st-century perspective, hindsight makes blatant the misogyny embodied in the rules of the 1867 Academy. Despite our privileged perspective, we must recognize that discrimination still exists.
What can we continue to learn from the graduating class of the women’s academy? “[The women] had a really strong senses of self,” Mawhinney said. “I think that is why there are so many incredible women I can tell you stories about.” Mawhinney believes that camaraderie and encouragement among the women students is what built a network of support.
Can women or femme-identifying individuals seek solace in this small population of privileged white women getting their education in the face of such discrimination?
It is unsettling to celebrate a women’s academy that actively espoused and promoted troublesome views and restrictions on women’s roles in society.
One hundred and fifty years later, Canada has a lot of work to do in terms of equality, but this presentation highlighted how women learned to cultivate their own spaces within a patriarchal and oppressive society.
Just like women throughout history, we need to continue to support one another by listening, educating and being educated. We need to continue holding each other out of windows to smoke our cigarettes.