Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/1/2016 (1854 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


In 1916, women in Manitoba scored a huge political victory when the province, however reluctantly, surrendered to their demands for the vote. There was much for Nellie McClung and friends to celebrate, but Canadian women would wait another 54 years before the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to offer its 167 recommendations to ensure their equality with men.

Still, the energy of the suffragists refused to die. As the revolutionary 1960s ended, a second great wave of feminism was making its presence known everywhere. Brilliant feminist writers seemed to blossom spontaneously. Betty Friedan exploded the myth of the happy housewife in The Feminine Mystique, Germaine Greer laid bare women's sexual discontent in The Female Eunuch and Robin Morgan published her ground-breaking work on womanly solidarity, Sisterhood is Powerful. Around the same time, Gloria Steinem began to edit a radical new magazine called, simply but significantly, Ms.

These second-wave feminists, now universally celebrated, were as unwelcome in Manitoba then as they were in most of the world. The male-centred mainstream media, possibly threatened by the fear of advancing armies of women journalists, did a superb job of vilifying them as malcontents -- suspicious freaks of nature who despised men and children. Only women who had failed as women qualified as feminists. Ordinary women were reluctant to identify with them; many still are.

In deeply felt movements, a moment may come when the political becomes personal. For me, it was reading the fine print on the life insurance offered to teachers at Red River College and realizing I was entitled -- meaning my children were entitled -- to significantly less protection than my male colleagues. I was a newly single mother, and on fire. It was the beginning of my feminist career.

I was a teacher. Formal education about the status of women had to start somewhere.

Why not Winnipeg? Why not me? In 1970, when the chance to design an English course for nursing students at Red River College came along, I knew exactly what to do.

Nurses were exciting candidates. Students were almost exclusively female, young, idealistic and heading unaware into a profession known to be plagued with chauvinism, one in which women (nurses) had most of the responsibility and men (doctors) held the authority. Some of them had been taught their highest ambition should be to find a doctor and marry well.

Working on the principle forgiveness would be easier to get than permission, I designed a course for the nurses I hoped would raise their self-esteem, broaden their choices and enrich their relationships. Using all the caution I was capable of, which was not much, I called it The Feminine Experience: How to Improve Your Bedside Manner through Literature.

We began with Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856), a novel documenting how elaborate romantic expectations made everyday life unbearable for the wife of a French country doctor. We moved on to D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), which detailed the suffocating dependence of the wives of long-suffering miners in England. Then came contemporary American works such as Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. The former examined the reliability of physical beauty as a path to fulfilment; the latter exposed the unconscious gender power struggles that can threaten a marriage and a family, complete with ensuing addictions.

The crown jewel of these literary treasures was Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a masterful tribute to Randall Patrick McMurphy as a lovable icon of male heroism. Seen through feminist eyes, Cuckoo's Nest was a frenzied hive of misogyny. All of the patients in the famed mental ward were the victims of powerful women and now in the iron custody of (Big) Nurse Ratched, one of the most evil characters in literature. Kesey at first denied, but eventually acknowledged, this was a correct analysis.

There is nothing sweeter to a teacher than seeing the light go on in a student's eyes. At course's end, we had covered most of the (rarely discussed) issues confronting women in the real world. A new sense of strength and possibility invaded all of us.

The college administration was less excited about upsetting apple carts. A reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune, apparently calling in from another planet, had written about the class in an article headlined Lesley Hughes teaches women how to catch men. Called to the principal's office to explain myself, I gave an honest account of the nurses' English course and threw in the (now) Justin Trudeau card. "Because it's 1970."The course disappeared.

In 1984, a full generation later, the federal government provided money to Canadian universities to establish women's studies. They are flourishing across the country.


Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster.