Feminism and its Malcontents in Canadian Universities

Black-and-white photograph of several women in a library, looking for books on the shelves and working at tables.

Museums Victoria via Unspash

Sara Wilmshurst

First off, I’d like to bless the Internet Archive for preserving human folly. The paper under review today has been scrubbed from its original home but lives on in infamy through the Wayback Machine.

I am speaking of “On the Challenges of Dating and Marriage in the New Generations,” published under the name of Benyamin Gohjogh. It made the news recently because Gohjogh lost his sessional teaching positions at Waterloo and University of Guelph after students raised concerns about the paper, which argued professors should be welcome to date their students, claimed “girls” behave in “psychologically sadistic” manners toward “boys” who are attracted to them, bewailed the difficulty of “hunting” for a partner at work or school, and complained that the pursuit of advanced education is “destructive for forming families”. References include “many boys who have experienced it” and incel YouTube videos.

Since this paper was not peer-reviewed into an early grave, it squats toadlike in my consciousness. As I read it fourteen names flashed through my mind.

Geneviève Bergeron.

Hélène Colgan.

Nathalie Croteau.

Barbara Daigneault.

Anne-Marie Edward.

Maud Haviernick.

Maryse Laganière.

Maryse Leclair.

Anne-Marie Lemay.

Sonia Pelletier.

Michèle Richard.

Annie St-Arneault.

Annie Turcotte.

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Perhaps this seems like a big leap to some readers. However, women and all other marginalized populations can tell you we are told we’re overreacting over and over until we suddenly, horribly, are not, as the situation catches up with our fears. Just last year an anti-feminist blogger praised the École Polytechnique shooting’s perpetrator for returning dignity to men.

I have chills thinking of the students in Gohjogh’s lectures, who he thought of as “girls” and blamed for all the world’s ills. It is especially disturbing while Waterloo is still shaken from a stabbing attack on a gender studies class last year.

Feminists have been fighting sexism on university campuses for a long time. The term “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975 to describe a Cornell employee’s experience at the hands of a professor. Scholars and activists quickly came to understand sexual harassment as a manifestation of a sexist society and a form of violence. Canadian university women raised their experiences of harassment and assault over and over until universities were forced to create policies and reporting mechanisms to fight the problem.

It has not been a perfect process. When Queen’s University initiated a “No Means No” campaign in 1989, men in one residence altered the signs to say things like “no means kick her in the teeth.” (You see, it’s funny because those men had never had their bodily autonomy meaningfully challenged. Why aren’t you laughing?). Harassers became specialists in plausible deniability and continued to wield their power over student assignments and opportunities, punishing women who declined a “collegial” hug. Western is still dealing with allegations of sexual violence during orientation week. University students are painfully aware that their colleagues and professors may not be trustworthy and must carefully pick their way through personal and professional minefields.

We could dismiss “On the Challenges of Dating and Marriage in the New Generations” as one person’s weird internet screed, a misguided joke or a cry for help. However, in a world where anti-feminism and misogyny are viable cornerstones of celebrities’ personal brands, male supremacist tags mysteriously appear on politicians’ videos, and the forced proximity of COVID lockdowns correlated to an increase in domestic violence and femicide, we must be alert to regressive thinking everywhere, and never let it pass unchallenged.

Gohjogh’s students were empowered to alert their universities to his manuscript in large part due to the activists who came before them. Let’s remember that work and continue it.

Sara Wilmshurst is an Historian at Know History Inc. and member of the Active History editorial collective. She thanks her fellow editors for their advice on this post.

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