16th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women

May 23, 2014

Histories on the Edge

Convocation Hall

On behalf of the University of Toronto, I am honoured to be here and to welcome you to the 16th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women — Histories on the Edge

We have been joined this evening by a number of remarkable leaders at the University, in the field and in the community more generally, and I hope I will be forgiven for not recognizing any one individual by name. I would like to acknowledge the hard work, excellent leadership — and remarkable degree of collaboration! — of the organizers of today’s event.

Professor Franca Iacovetta, President of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women and Co-chair

Professor Jayeeta Sharma (both from the History Department at UTSC)

And the countless volunteers from U of T and from our university partners in Toronto and throughout Canada. Thank you

After three long years of planning and preparation, the world’s largest and most influential conference on the history of women, gender and sexuality is being held outside of the US for the first time ever. The University of Toronto is delighted to open its doors to more than 2,000 participants from around the globe, and to warmly welcome world-renowned scholars, junior colleagues and students alike.

The conference affords the University an excellent opportunity to collaborate with community partners to explore the many important issues captured by the program’s themes of dominance, marginality, insertion and transformation of society’s marginal or ‘edged out’ groups.

It also affords the University — and the field of women’s history more specifically — the chance to challenge, inspire, and engage a wider society; to speak to a variety of activist and policy concerns; to build bridges between the academy and wider publics and between scholarly, artistic and political engagement. And on that last note, this year’s conference offers a truly remarkable, vast and diverse range of cultural programing that draws on Toronto’s rich local resources.

For generations, U of T students, staff, and faculty members have been vocal in their call for social and political change, and the University has a long and strong history of advocacy on what we now term equity and diversity. The University is proud to have played a leading role in introducing women’s history into the North American university curriculum. And we hold the distinction of having one of the oldest programs in Women and Gender Studies in Canada with due credit to Jill Ker Conway and Natalie Zemon Davis.

The University is also gratified to have witnessed a series of ‘firsts’ in its long and storied history. Whether it be in terms of curriculum as noted above, or in terms of gender equity in professional education, U of T is alma mater to Canada’s first woman:

  1. Dentist (1893)
  2. Lawyer (1899) [the first in Canada and in the entire British Empire]
  3. Architect (1920)
  4. Electrical engineer (1927) and aircraft designer

To name just a few.

Or in establishing progressive and inclusive programs and initiatives: In 1969, UofT was home to the first gay and lesbian group in Toronto — the only one at that time on any Canadian campus. In fact, if you were able to attend yesterday’s commemoration of ‘Women of Distinction’ by Heritage Toronto you may have seen the plaque dedicated to this historic group at University College.

These programs and initiatives have made the University of Toronto a better place, even as they serve to remind us that the struggle for genuine inclusiveness and respect continues to this day.

Often university is the first refuge where young people can embrace and express the diverse aspects of their identity and we mustn’t forget how are privileged we are to be a part of this community. Nor must we forget that it is a far from perfect sanctuary. Confronting entrenched prejudice and discrimination is a long and difficult process, and it is essential that we take moments such as this to pause, reflect, question, debate and, yes, occasionally celebrate our milestones and hard-won achievements to date.

Academic institutions have the potential — and some would argue the moral imperative — to play a significant role in establishing sustainable and socially-just societies. They do so as engaged members of the community, as creators of knowledge, and as educators of current and future citizens.

In closing, I thank you all for joining us and offer best wishes for critical reflection and provocative, scholarly debate at the ‘first Canadian Big Berks’!

Thank you.