Editor’s note: These remarks were shared by Joanne Wright, a colleague of Wendy Robbins,’ at a memorial service held on May 20, 2017 at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). More than 150 people attended the event hosted by Robbins’ former students and friends Heather Robinson and Clarissa Hurley to celebrate Robbins’ life. Based in Fredericton since 1984, Wendy Robbins was a tireless activist: founder of the UNB Gender and Women’s Studies Program, member of the NB Coalition for Pay Equity, active in provincial politics, among her many accomplishments. Her two children and grandchildren were also in attendance during the afternoon service that featured guitar pieces by Steven Peacock and a performance by the Handbell Choir (of which Robbins was a member). Robbins passed away suddenly on April 18th from complications following an aneurism.
It is my pleasure and also my great challenge to speak briefly about the contribution that Dr. Wendy Robbins has made to Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) and to feminism at UNB. How can we offer a brief account of someone who made such a huge contribution in so many areas? I consider myself one of many women in the university—faculty and students—whose life and career were very much touched and guided by her leadership, her activism and her high expectations.
Wendy was one who, in the words of our colleague Dr. Linda Neilson, “just jumped right in,” and expected that others would do the same. Indeed, when I took over GWS from her a few years back, I quickly learned that being the coordinator of this Arts interdisciplinary program meant, not just advising students and administering the program, but joining in the political fight as well. She would call me up and say, “Joanne, you and I are going to co-write a letter to the Premier about abortion access on behalf of GWS,” to which I could only respond, “We are? Ok!”
Colleagues who gathered shortly after her death in my office spoke admiringly of her strategic political sensibility; she not only lived and breathed politics, but she had an acute sense of how and when to lobby for what was needed.
Like our Women’s and Gender Studies colleagues across the country, I have always thought of Wendy as a foremother in Canadian feminism—for decades spent working to improve the lives of women, for fighting discrimination in the awarding of Canada Research Chairs, for winning a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case, for founding the feminist listserv PAR-L, and for tirelessly promoting reproductive rights in New Brunswick. And I do mean tirelessly, for among the images I have is one of Wendy taking a seat on the steps of the Legislature during a pro-choice rally because she was battling pneumonia but didn’t want to miss the protest.
I try to imagine what the university was like for young women faculty when she arrived in the 1980s, now commonly known as the backlash decade. Just because equity talk is enjoying some popularity currently does not mean it was always so, or that Wendy had unlimited space in which to air her concerns when she arrived at UNB. And yet, she worked to create that space for herself and for others. She and her four colleagues, Dr. Gillian Thompson, Dr. Janet Stoppard, Dr. Jennie Hornosty, and Dr. Vicky Gray, created the Women’s Studies program in 1986.
While Wendy thought of herself as “the new kid on the block,” she was, in Gillian Thompson’s words, “a mighty force to be reckoned with for feminism and the Women’s Studies program.” She was Advisor to the President on the Status of Women (I didn’t know there was ever such a thing), and is affectionately remembered for laboriously carrying her “portable (but not light weight) computer” to planning meetings to take notes. The founders, along with many others, divvied up the work to be done, some lobbying for daycare, some working on an equity task force, and others developing curriculum and creating an academic home for students and faculty alike.
Wendy had a great sense of the common purpose and longevity of feminism; borrowing from Juliet Mitchell she called it “the longest revolution.” At the celebration of twenty years of Women’s Studies held at the UNB archives in 2006, which she and others attended in full academic regalia, Wendy honoured her many predecessors, from Lois Paine, who petitioned in 1785 for a college to be created here, to her senior colleague in English, Dr. Marjorie Dunn Chapman, who had very recently passed away, and whose office she inherited on the 3rd floor of Carleton Hall. In her remarks that day she stated, “This is not a celebration and a tribute to any small handful of women, nor even to three waves of the women’s movement, but to an ongoing process of transformation.”
In her last interview with CBC Information Morning, Wendy spoke about her reasons for having attended the Women’s March in Washington, describing these as “dangerous times.” Still, as concerned as she was about Trump, and before that, Stephen Harper, and the political situation for women in New Brunswick, never did she become cynical or embittered. Instead, she was already primed for the next challenge. All the more poignant, then, is Gillian Thompson’s reflection that “Surely Wendy was at the very top of her form, and must still be needed by others seeking the same ends.” Indeed, this is undoubtedly so. Still, in no small part because of Wendy’s efforts, that space for equality is larger than it was, and we have only to “jump right in” and embrace “the ongoing process of transformation.”
Joanne Wright is a faculty member at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.