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Wendy Robbins: Beyond Anger and Apathy to Action and Collaboration

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Guest blog by Louise Forsyth, Professor Emerita in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, French and Drama at the University of Saskatchewan, in collaboration with Jennifer Brayton, Sociologist at Ryerson University and current Moderator of PAR-L

Louise Forsyth was President, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences,1998-2000.
Wendy Robbins was Vice-President, Women's Issues, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2000-2004.

Wendy J. Robbins – feminist activist with awesome capabilities, internationally acclaimed scholar, person with serious political influence, and woman whose heart has been filled with laughter, love, and uncompromising passion – died suddenly of an aneurysm on April 18, 2017. We shall miss her terribly! The work she has been doing for decades brings each of us a little closer to a community where real social justice is enjoyed by all. Wendy had a powerful gift for collaborating and communicating with everyone. Chimène, her daughter, says: “[Wendy] always thought of how what she was doing could help make others’ lives better – whether it was her students, or women becoming involved in politics and then enacting legislation that would help other women. She wanted every person (and especially every woman) to have the full ability to make decisions about their own body – whether that was reproduction or end of life.” (CBC News, Apr. 19, 2017)

Wendy joined the English Department at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 1984. She quickly co-founded the Women’s Studies program, serving as its Coordinator for many years. The extraordinarily high quality of her scholarship and teaching was recognized in her being the first female Full Professor in English at UNB and receiving the prestigious Allan P. Stewart Award for Excellence in Teaching. For her many extraordinary contributions, Wendy received the Governor-General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case in 2007, playing many ground-breaking leadership roles in, for example: Studies in Canadian Literature journal, Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Expert Panel on Women in University Research, Council of Canadian Academics, New Brunswick Women’s Liberal Commission and National Women’s Liberal Commission.

Wendy launched major initiatives that form a significant part of our daily lives and memories, such as the coast-to-coast-to-coast Canadian Electronic Feminist Network PAR-L (Policy, Action, Research List), one of the world’s first feminist online discussion lists. On March 8, 1995 (International Women’s Day), as Research Director for the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW) , she was set to launch PAR-L, at the very moment when the Mulroney government closed the CACSW. Disturbed but undaunted, Wendy and sociologist Michèle Ollivier (University of Ottawa) found a welcoming home for PAR-L at UNB. Wendy and Michèle, both bilingual, immediately got to work as co-moderators, ready to meet the challenge of defining the list, developing membership, taming the technology, setting a tone, parameters and criteria, checking facts and keeping it going on a daily basis. PAR-L, now more than 20 years old with 1,500 members, was close to 3,000 members from around the world at its peak. Annual demographic study and analysis revealed that the influence of PAR-L extended far beyond the actual mailing list, as many members were sharing PAR-L newsletters and posts with organizations and others in their own networks. Jennifer Brayton, current moderator and 20-year technical person and Katherine Macnaughton-Osler, former co-moderator, who have worked together since Wendy’s death in managing to ensure that PAR-L will continue and its archives going back to 1995 will be preserved at UNB, know that PAR-L web archives are being used for research purposes all over the world in different areas of study.

As Visiting Scholar at CAUT in 2003, Wendy led a team doing research on the outrageous gender wage gap in Canadian universities: “Robbins will be collaborating with CAUT to produce the annual statistical report Ivory Towers: Feminist Audits, a joint effort of the Federation, CAUT and PAR-L to gain a more precise understanding of the faculty wage gap.” (news release) These Academic Audits were distributed as report cards with shocking impact for several years at Congress.

Also in 2003, Wendy was one of eight academic women that launched a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Industry Canada alleging discrimination in the Canada Research Chairs program (CRC). In 2006, the Commission upheld in its entirety the allegations based on discrimination against women, Indigenous persons, racialized persons and persons with disabilities. The success of the complaint did not, unfortunately, lead to effective action producing remedies in either the program or Canadian universities. As a result, Wendy was one of the seven remaining academics who are in the process right now of taking legal action against the CRC program in order to produce real change across the Canadian university landscape.

Wendy Robbins was a model for us all in her passion, her compassion, and dispassion when it came to seeing the stark reality of injustice, feeling the anger it stirs, and moving boldly and calmly with others to make the action needed for real change happen.

Wendy's children are honoured to announce the creation of the Wendy J. Robbins Women's Empowerment Fund, to support women's public participation and personal autonomy.

Donations may be made to honour and continue Wendy's legacy of promoting women's rights in Canada to the University of New Brunswick WENDY J. ROBBINS WOMEN'S EMPOWERMENT FUND in the following ways: online at https://donations.helpforcharities.com/unbdonation/?dept_id=memwrobbins; by mailing in Memorial Gifts to Development & Donor Relations, University of New Brunswick, PO Box 4400, Fredericton, NB  E3B 5A3; or by calling 506-458-7594. Donations are tax deductible in Canada, as well as for UNB graduates living in the US. We welcome any contribution, no matter how large or small, and encourage everyone to spread the message about this new fund widely. Contributions can be made at any time now and in the future. Our current goal is to receive as many donations as possible by August 4, which would have been Wendy's 69th birthday.