Shelagh Wilkinson strives for a more equitable world

A scholar and an activist, York Professor Emerita Shelagh Wilkinson told graduands at Fall Convocation ceremonies that the most vital question to her today is: How is it possible to create a more equitable world in the future?

“It’s an overwhelming problem, I know, and one blanches in front of it,” said Wilkinson, well-known in Canada and around the world for her work to improve access to higher education as well as health and political rights for women.

Left: Shelagh Wilkinson

“Each one of us, whether we’re in a classroom as a teacher or in an office or a hospital, a lawyer, a counsellor, wherever it is that we find ourselves – is each one of us willing to challenge injustice and not back off? I know you are starting your professional lives in troubling and difficult times, but it is all the more reason, I believe, each one of us must be a catalyst for change.”

Wilkinson, herself a catalyst for change, was the first editor and a tireless supporter of Canadian Woman Studies, a journal that raised the profile of iwomen’s ssues in a most inclusive way, incorporating research other than scholarly or government studies as well as poetry and life-writing. She was the founding director of York’s Centre for Feminist Research and was instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Studies Bridging Program at York, which has brought many women across the divide between their lives in the community and the world of academia, an example of her academic outreach and quest for social justice. 

She told graduands that 80 years ago, five women from the prairies “went to the British Privy Council to lobby the British North America Act of 1857, and asked that women should become persons in this country, giving them the right to a place in Senate and a more open life in political arenas. The women got the act changed and in 1929 we became persons. That was 80 years ago and we remember their courageous stand. They are going to posthumously be awarded places in Senate and that’s a first time Canada has done such a thing.”

As Wilkinson is 81, she said she was born a non-person. “So today is a good day for me to contemplate the differences that a single act can make.”

Right: Shelagh Wilkinson (left), Chancellor Roy McMurtry and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

Wilkinson praised the University for its courage to create Atkinson College, now part of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “It was a real issue of social justice. It levelled a playing field for working people that had never been levelled before,” she said. “In 1962, York…became a pioneer in adult education. Other established universities weren’t willing, or did not want to consider recruiting students who are older and are in the workforce. It smacked of socialism, was seen as a shift to the left; even more important to the traditionalists, it seemed fiscally imprudent.”

York chose as its motto, The Way Must Be Tried, and try they did, with excellent success, especially with Atkinson, said Wilkinson. The creation of Atkinson made it possible for Wilkinson to attend university. “To be accepted in university was a dream I never thought possible for me. I was brought up in Liverpool and I was a nurse and I had three children under six, and I thought the doors of higher education were firmly locked.”

After graduating from Atkinson College, Wilkinson went on to teach there for many years. And she did not sit idly by. “I challenged York on its own motto – that I could change, that I could try a new way – and by the 1970s, I knew that I wanted to teach from a feminist perspective and I knew that I wanted to teach literature written by women for women,” she said. “And the amazing thing was…my English department in Atkinson gave me carte blanche to go ahead and try these courses.” And the Women’s Studies Program was established. She thanked the University for its vision.

"If we trace the growth of the academic acceptance and legitimization of women’s studies here at York, we have to recognize the strength that lies in multi-disciplinary research, which this University has championed since its very inception,” Wilkinson said. “And although I know we still have huge inequities that persist, surely the campus and the classroom is the place to learn to respect the other, rather than on a battlefield.”

To watch archived video of convocation ceremonies, click here. This speech is part of Ceremony No. 5.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer