Passings: Professor Thelma McCormack was a scholar, feminist and sociologist

Thelma McCormack featured image for YFile email
Thelma McCormack
Thelma McCormack

York University Professor Emerita Thelma McCormack, a publicly-engaged scholar, feminist and sociologist, died on May 21, at the age of 95.

Prof. McCormack was a trailblazer whose insightful and sometimes controversial work crossed disciplinary and organizational boundaries, including media, politics and culture.

She was born Thelma Herman on March 14, 1921 in Rochester, New York to parents who came to the U.S. after fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. Educated at the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University, she studied with C. Wright Mills, Robert Lynd, Robert Merton, Ruth Benedict and Max Horkheimer among others.

At Columbia she met Robert McCormack, a graduate student in literature, and they married in 1948. They moved to Canada shortly after their twin daughters were born in 1954, where Robert became a producer and later a manager at the CBC. With young children at home, Prof. McCormack worked as a freelance researcher in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and published articles on different facets of mass media, mass society, politics, and culture.

In 1964, she took a job teaching sociology at Toronto’s York University, where she would teach one of the first courses on communications in a Canadian university, and eventually became a tenured professor. Her husband died in 1969, and she never remarried.

Prof. McCormack was fearless in her commitment to social change and women’s issues, and had an irrepressible sense of humour. A feminist who took the side of civil libertarians against censorship, she became an authority on pornography and censorship, and served as an expert witness for several legal cases, including a landmark case involving the gay weekly newspaper, The Body Politic. The positions she held included president of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association, president of the Canadian Women’s Studies Association, director of the Graduate Program in Women’s Studies (which she and others founded) and director of the Centre for Feminist Research, both at York University.

Through the years, she taught at a number of universities, often as a visiting professor, including the University of Illinois, Barnard College, Northwestern, McGill, University of California Los Angeles, the University of Amsterdam, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of British Columbia and Mount St. Vincent.

A prolific writer and thinker, she published more than 200 articles, monographs, book chapters, book reviews and short papers, working well into her eighties. Prof. McCormack was awarded honorary doctorates from Mount St. Vincent University in 1989 and Dalhousie University in 1998, as well as the YWCA Women of Distinction award in 1993.

She mentored and inspired a new generation of sociologists and feminists, and left her groundbreaking mark on a remarkable range of scholarly and community activities.

Predeceased by her parents, husband and sister, she leaves her daughters, Naomi and Judith McCormack (Peter Dorfman), grandchildren Julia Dorfman (Ben Ferdinand) and Daniel McCormack, and nieces and nephews Kate Kahn, Jason Shaplen, Sara McCormack and Tim McCormack.

A memorial to celebrate her life will be held on Wednesday, June 1, from 2 to 3pm, with a reception to follow from 3 to 5pm at Mount Pleasant Cemetery Visitation Centre, 375 Mount Pleasant Road, Toronto.

Tributes and messages can be left in her guest book at