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Feminists, academics, mourn Wendy Robbins, a true powerhouse who touched thousands of women's lives

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Feminists across Canada and abroad are mourning the sudden death of Professor Wendy Robbins of the University of New Brunswick on April 14. The 68-year-old English professor and chair or former chair of a dozen organizations was struck by a brain aneurysm and succumbed to surgery complications.

CBC reported that on April 12, her last evening, Wendy Robbins "attended the New Brunswick Liberal fundraiser, An Evening With Jean Chrétien, in Saint John, and took full advantage of the opportunity to bend the ear of the former prime minister."  She was driving home to Fredericton when the headache started.

At the champagne reception, Robbins was promoting an audacious plan to increase the number of women legislators by requiring two elected representatives for every riding, one male and one female. Robbins had a history of promoting ideas that seemed audacious at the time but make perfect sense in retrospect.

For example, in 1995 Wendy Robbins did all the groundwork to start an email list -- one of the earliest and longest lasting e-lists in Canada or the world, as it turned out.  She was the research director at the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women at the time, with access to a mainframe and technical help that allowed the CACSW to reach out to universities and those of us who had our own "personal" computers.   

A rare e-list dedicated to feminist conversation -- welcoming "men who share our goals" --  the bilingual Policy, Action, Research List, (PAR-L) quickly grew to include more than 1600 feminist academics, journalists, grassroots activists, researchers, women's organizations, and others.

Unfortunately, PAR-L was set to launch on March 8, 1995, International Women’s Day. On March 1, the newly elected Brian Mulroney government announced it would close the CACSW on April 1. April Fools!  
Together with her colleague Michèle Ollivier, Robbins found PAR-L a new home at the University of  New Brunswick. Robbins won an English post there, and became the first woman to win full professorship at UNB. Indeed, she co-founded UNB’s Women’s Studies Program. With PARL safely housed, and Ollivier teaching in Ottawa, the list’s co-founders and co-moderators jumped into their life's work -- promoting gender equality, in Canada and internationally.  

Between the two of them, Robbins and Ollivier actively moderated a truly bilingual list that shared resources across regions and cultures, from West Coast Rape Relief news to Indian Rights for Indian Women events, from Nicole Nepton's Cybersolidaires updates in Montreal to New Brunswick's Coalition for Pay Equity annual scorecards on the gender wage gap.

Alternating weeks, Ollivier and Robbins set a certain tone for the list, as well as weeding out duplicates and fact-checking. Their interventions smoothed language differences and kept PAR-L on topic; later, deft (and draining) moderation maintained a civil tone on the list when tempers flared over issues like prostitution and transgender folks' analyses of feminism.

[Full disclosure: As a feminist journalist researching stories, I was a frequent PAR-L contributor early on, and sometimes had the good luck to meet up with Wendy or Michele in Ottawa or at conferences.]

Meanwhile, as PAR-L grew, so did the moderators' careers. Michèle Ollivier started as an Associate Professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department the University of Ottawa. She was a Full Professor by 2010.  

In 2003, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) proudly announced Wendy Robbins would be Visiting Scholar that year.

"Robbins will be collaborating with CAUT to produce the annual statistical report, Ivory Towers: Feminist Audits, a joint effort of CFHSS, CAUT and PAR-L...to gain a more precise understanding of the faculty wage gap," said CAUT's news release.  

Based on CAUT's statistics, Robbins and Ollivier led a successful human rights complaint against the federal government, over discrimination in the $265 million Canada Research Chairs Program. Almost all the (approximately 2,000) prestigious Chairs were held by white men, no matter how diverse their fields were. After their HRC victory, Robbins served on the resulting Expert Panel on Women in University Research, at the Government of Canada’s request.  

Robbins also served as Chair of the Women's Committee of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and Vice-President responsible for women's and equity issues for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS). She was also a former president of the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies.  Outside the academy, she had been President of New Brunswick Women’s Liberal Commission, and was serving as the Vice-President, Atlantic for the National Women’s Liberal Commission when she died.

In 2007, the Governor-General awarded Wendy Robbins the Person’s Medal in honour of her work online -- PAR-L -- and in the real world. In 2010, after a long illness, Michele Ollivier died, at the young age of 53. Although Robbins enlisted other PAR-L moderators from time to time, she still seemed to process most of the posts that appeared.

Now Wendy Robbins has died too. With the passing of both its founders, PAR-L was left without an owner. It’s one of the oldest email lists in Canada, if not the world, with 20 years of valuable archives, and it was active right up until recent days.

E-lists have faded away in general. Facebook has taken over a lot of e-list functions, such as sharing resources and online real time Chats – and even monitoring for rude behaviour, what we used to call Nettiquette. Reading email feels almost like answering the landline. All the e-lists now seem to post in fits and starts. And yet, how I have missed seeing that PAR-L- subject line in my inbox.

In 2003, I was in Ottawa and dropped by to visit Wendy Robbins at her temporary quarters. I knew she was in town as Visiting Scholar at CAUT. I hadn’t realized she was staying in a (rather posh) long term rehabilitation facility because she’d been injured.

Riding her bicycle to work on one of her first days at CAUT, Wendy was clipped by a pick-up truck driving at speed. The truck’s side mirror threw her onto the ground, shattering one shoulder and the opposite thigh.

Nevertheless, she persisted. I found her in a tiny studio apartment, in a wheelchair, with her leg splinted out in front and her arm splinted out to the side. As we left to grab a coffee in the dining room, Wendy turned to me with a twinkle in her eye and said, "Race you to the elevator!"

Directly or indirectly, as professors, mentors, or trailblazers, Wendy Robbins and Michèle Ollivier touched thousands of women's lives. I just heard that UNB has agreed to host the list indefinitely and two volunteer moderators have stepped forward. PAR-L will survive. New generations of activists will have an online forum where they can share their opinions and annouce their events. Even if that were not the case, Robbins’ and Ollivier’s feminist legacy will continue to enrich Canada.

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

Donations may be made to honor 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 by donating online here.

Image: Flickr/YouTube

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