Three decades of women celebrated 

By Karen Herland

"A women's college is designed to make trouble."

This statement was written three decades ago when the Simone de Beauvoir Institute first opened its doors. And for the dozens of faculty, staff, alumnae, fellows and students who met on Nov. 21 to reminisce, reconnect and relive the Institute's achievements, the statement was both memory and promise.

During the dinner ending the day's activities at the Montefiore Club on Guy St., President Judith Woodsworth told those present that Maïr Verthuy, the Institute’s first principal, hired her into the French department in 1980.

"In the beginning, there was Maïr," said Woodsworth. Through Verthuy, Woodsworth became involved in the Institute and she spoke fondly of everything she learned at the "wonderful training ground" that the Institute offers.

Woodsworth urged current students to take that knowledge and consider careers in politics or in academic leadership. In both areas, women occupy fewer spaces the higher up the ladder they travel.

The herstory of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Current Interim Principal Chantal Maillé (left) poses with first principal Maïr Verthuy. Magnifying glass

The herstory of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Current Interim Principal Chantal Maillé (left) poses with first principal Maïr Verthuy.

The event started in the early afternoon with a panel discussion in which all nine of the women who had held the principal's position over the years were represented (both Marika Ainley and Lillian Robinson have since passed away but were represented by colleagues). Over the course of the day, more than 100 people who felt some link to the Institute arrived to reconnect with old friends and allies.

Verthuy recalled that the Institute, like other colleges, was initially formed to offer programs on a smaller, more welcoming scale after the merger of Loyola and Sir George. The Institute also engaged women who, riding on the feminist consciousness-raising wave of the late '70s, returned to university from the suburbs when their kids had left the nest.

Verthuy also remarked on how most of Concordia's women's studies courses were championed by established, tenured faculty, which was not the case at other institutions. Other panelists recalled their personal experiences and triumphs as well as the theoretical feminist debates reflected within the Institute.

As each woman shared her memories, the importance of the contributions of all members of the Institute became apparent. The impressive achievements of many of the 2 300 students who had studied at the Institute (some of whom were represented in a panel of graduates and current students) were also acknowledged.

Among those present was Carole Brazeau, one of the first Aboriginal students at Concordia. Brazeau recalls the supportive environment of the Institute under Gail Valaskakis, then Dean of Arts and Science, as well as one of the country’s first Aboriginal university administrators.

"When I graduated, I was proud to bear her name on my degree," Brazeau said of the role model who helped guide her. Ever since, Brazeau has worked with Native women, currently serving as Justice and Public Security Advisor for Quebec Native Women Inc.

Discussions on whether women's studies are best served within the Institute or across the university in all departments were revived. (Though, as Maria Peluso asked at the very end of the day, "why hold on to that either/or binary, why not both/and?"). Sociology and Anthropology Department Chair Fran Shaver, who helmed the Institute nearly a decade ago, said such tensions, "were likely essential to a dynamic institution."

By the time the last guest had either gone home or to the informal karaoke party that kept alumnae, some faculty and students out until well into the next day, it was clear that no one was ready to give up making trouble just yet.


Concordia University