Feminists love the Irony: UofT’s historic symbol of male fraternity hosts Toronto Berks

Several UofT alumni have noted, with a chuckle, that Hart House, the lovely “gothic” building that will house many Berks sessions, and the Friday cultural night, All Through the House: A Night of Feminist Art and Culture, was long a bastion of male privilege – until women broke down the barriers in 1972. As its website indicates, Hart House has not been shy about acknowledging this history, and an exhibit on display during the Berks, entitled “Not Behaving Like Ladies,” narrates not only women’s campaigns to become HH members but their role in transforming this bastion of gentlemanly civic-mindedness into a more inclusive progressive space for all. We will savour the delicious irony of welcoming a huge crowd of women, men and lgbtq2 people into a building once meant for men only. allthroughthehouse

Read Sara Burke’s short history of Hart House and the debate over coeducation penned below, and take in the women’s exhibit when you get here in May! (Thanks Sara, for writing it)


Hart House Hosts the Berks by Sara Burke, Laurentian University

At the southern entrance to Hart House, on the campus of the University of Toronto, an inscription conveys the prayer of the founders that within its walls may be found good fellowship, friendly debate, and wise conversation. It seems highly appropriate, therefore, that this spring Hart House will host the international Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. Yet the founders of Hart House never intended to welcome women into its halls. When it first opened in 1919, Hart House was restricted to male students and faculty only, and women were not admitted as members until 1972.

Hart House, in fact, was born out of controversy over coeducation at the university. Only ten years earlier, in 1909, the university senate had attempted to remove all female undergraduates from the faculty of arts, and build a special college for women where they would take their classes separately from male students. The committee formed to oversee the project had launched a bitter attack on coeducation; it was a system, the report argued, designed for men and men’s careers. What was needed instead was a college dedicated to meeting women’s “special needs.”

Women’s groups on campus immediately organized a unified opposition, protesting that the segregation of female students could only result in inferior standards and limited resources. For university women, coeducation had become symbolic of social progress, and the senate’s proposal threatened to reverse the accomplishments of the past. Augusta Stowe-Gullen, the first woman to graduate with a medical degree in Canada, decisively told the Toronto Star in 1909: “It advocates a most reactionary step and opposes most of what women’s reform has been struggling for in Canada.”

Coeducation had long been championed in Canada as the more progressive option for those seeking higher education. In 1884, the Ontario government had forced the University of Toronto to admit women into classes at University College. Over the next twenty years, the number of female students had increased rapidly, and, as at other universities, women had asserted their right to the full privileges of undergraduates. The behaviour of women undergraduates had become a source of concern for administrators, and they had made several attempts during the 1890s to limit the contact of male and female students, and bring women under closer supervision. The attempt to end coeducation in 1909 was the culmination of a long debate over the presence of women at Toronto.

A separate college, the senate proposed, was exactly suited to meet women’s special needs. Just what these needs were was not fully explained, but women faculty and students suspected that the university was planning to fuse women’s education in arts into the new faculty of household science, which had been created in 1906. Funded by the Methodist philanthropist Lillian Massey Treble, courses in household science had been offered at Toronto since 1902, and in 1908, the university had started the construction of an expensive household science building on Avenue road (now home to Club Monaco). The timing of the separate college project was not coincidental. As faculty and students walked past the building site, they may have been reminded that a special building for women’s education was already under construction. Senators had discussed locating the separate college next to the household science building, where a close affiliation between the two institutions could be achieved.

The opposition launched by university women was successful. Members of University College, Victoria College, Trinity College, and medical alumnae organizations created the United Alumnae Association, dedicated to retarding the movement towards a separate college and getting women elected to the senate. By early 1910, the senate had backed down and the women’s college idea had been shelved. The movement to restrict coeducation, however, found an equally forceful expression in the announcement, in March 1910, that the Massey family would fund the creation of Hart House, a separate social, athletic, and cultural club restricted to male students and faculty.

In the wake of the separate college controversy, two buildings were constructed on the Toronto campus, which in effect segregated the activities of male and female students: the household science building, opened to women in 1913, and Hart House, opened to men in 1919. At the university’s request, the household science building included a pool and gymnasium available to all female students, and for many years it provided a centre for women’s extracurricular activities on campus. In the absence of better facilities – the pool was known as “the bathtub” – the household science building served as the de facto women’s building on campus; it was not until 1959 that the Benson building for female physical education was opened.

For most of the twentieth century, Hart House was the intellectual and social hub of university life, but, as the founder’s inscription asserted, this fellowship was for men alone. While women learned to swim in the tiny pool on Avenue road, male students had the advantage of much nicer facilities at Hart House. (Although some young men were daunted by the no swimsuit rule, enforced for the mandatory swimming classes.) More importantly, they had access to a unique university men’s club, modelled on an Oxford college, which provided opportunities for study, conversation, and recreation unparalleled anywhere else on campus.

Women students and faculty frequently protested their exclusion, but the terms of Vincent Massey’s deed of gift specified that Hart House accept men only, and it was not until 1972, following Massey’s death, that women were admitted as members. Coeducation had been saved at Toronto in 1910, yet the separation of male and female students outside the lecture halls had been achieved in practice by the buildings gifted by the Massey family. In May 2014, about two thousand women and gender historians are expected to come to Toronto for the Berks Conference where they will engage in good fellowship, friendly debate, and wise conversation. I find it both fitting and poignant that this gathering of women historians will be welcomed to Hart House.

Sara Burke is an associate professor in the History Department at Laurentian University. She is the author of Seeking the Highest Good: Social Service and Gender at the University of Toronto, 1888-1937 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996). Her current project, The Question of Coeducation: Women in Canadian Universities before 1930, explores the admission of women to higher education, and the experience of female undergraduates in coeducational universities in Canada.


“Not Behaving Like Ladies”: An Anecdotal History of Women’s Participation at Hart House
March 5, 2014 – on
The Great Hall, Hart House (7 Hart House Circle)
This exhibition project explores the history of women’s involvement at Hart House through interviews with a group of twenty-five women who lived through and led its transitions. Hart House did not admit women until 1972, and the project chronicles the movement of women on the margins through their introduction as full members who now participate in every aspect of Hart House life. The exhibition displays portraits and interviews from a variety of Hart House alumni, including Wardens Louise Cowin and Margaret Hancock, journalist Linda McQuaig and Anne of Green Gables costume designer Martha Mann. The project does not seek to provide an objective history of women at Hart House, but rather an anecdotal narrative highlighting diverse subjectivities and intersecting stories.

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