Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Female students disguise as men to attend John F. Kennedy campus lecture

    In the fall of 1957, news of John F. Kennedy's visit to the University of Toronto campus created a great deal of excitement among the university’s more politically minded students.  The Massachusetts senator, already considered a potential candidate for the presidency, had agreed to participate in a debate to be held at Hart House. The debate was called ‘Has the United States failed in its responsibility as world leader?’. 

    Judy Sarick (née Graner), a philosophy and English major and a reporter for The Varsity, was eager to cover the event for the student paper but there was a hitch. Hart House, whose founder Vincent Massey held certain Edwardian views on the separation of the sexes, was almost completely off-limits to women.

    After a group of female students tried unsuccessfully to convince the warden of Hart House to give them access, Sarick and her friends decided that antiquated and unfair rules were made to be broken. In a scheme reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, they disguised themselves as men (dressing in trousers and hats) and made their way into the debates room, occupying a set of seats near the front row, near senator Kennedy. 

    Later that afternoon, Kennedy told spectators, “I personally agree with keeping women out of these things. It’s a pleasure to be in a country where they cannot mix in everywhere.” The debate was about to begin when a security guard noticed that one of the women was wearing nail polish, and they were escorted from of the building.

     “It was definitely a political statement, though there was lots of fun around it,” recounts Sarick. “This was before the feminist revolution when there was little institutional support for women. It was up to the individual to be as brave as she needed to be.” 

     While the University of Toronto accepted its first female students as far back as 1884, women have faced significant challenges in their long struggle towards full equality at the university. It was not until the 1960s that more than just a handful of women became tenured faculty members; enrolment numbers for women in master’s and doctorate programs at U of T did not catch up until the mid-1980s and late 1990s respectively. Hart House became fully coeducational in 1972.

    By the end of the 20th century, more than half of U of T’s students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels were women, including 50 per cent in the humanities, social sciences and medicine. Also, one-third of faculty and approximately 57 per cent of full- and part-time staff were women. 

     As Sarick’s story shows, even in the days before the feminist revolution, intrepid female faculty, staff and students found ways to negotiate around social and institutional restrictions. Graduates Augusta Stowe Gullen, the first female doctor to be trained in Canada and a leader of the suffrage movement, and Elizabeth MacGill, Canada’s first female electrical engineer and designer of a Second World War fighter plane, are just two of the brave and accomplished women associated with the university.

By Stephen Watt, University of Toronto

Extracted, with minor editorial changes, from:

Stephen Watt (2004, February 23). Rights of passage: University celebrates 120 years of great women. The Bulletin. Toronto: University of Toronto, 9.

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