Viviane Namaste, the acting principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, took over the role after friend and colleague Dr. Lillian Robinson died of ovarian cancer this fall. Dr. Robinson was well-known in the community as a scholar and activist. Namaste talked to The Concordian about Dr. Robinson and the future of women’s studies.
Can you tell me what the program is about?
Women’s studies is a program dedicated to understanding women in history. So, what has been the historical situation of women in Canada and all over the world? The history is one component of it. And then what is the situation of women now? What kinds of organizing have women done to improve their conditions? Access to information, access to education, access to public institutions? Women’s studies asks the questions, Why is it useful to spend the time thinking about women in particular? How can that help us in terms of our understanding of the world? Gender is a pretty fundamental component to how the world works. Also, asking how it can help us not just understand but act in the world is important.
So activism plays a role?
Feminist theory has always been intimately linked to politics. Women’s studies as a discipline in many ways emerged in dialogue with the women’s movement. Women’s studies is really about saying, ‘We need a field of inquiry which is going to put women front and center.’ We’re going to create knowledge that activists can then use to help them improve the conditions.
How does the institute narrow its focus for its students?
There are certain core courses that everyone takes. Those are a standard kind of operation in terms of introduction. The program has an emphasis in two particular areas. One is studies on questions of race, in the context of Canada, and in Quebec. So, how is that understood and experienced by women? What are the ways in which it has altered the women’s movement? And then the second component is allowing questions of sexuality. How is women’s sexuality understood? How is it articulated? How has that developed?
What if someone questioned the program’s academic credibility?
We certainly know that sexuality is something that affects all of our lives, irrespective of how you choose to identify yourself, or even whether or not you choose to identify yourself. Sexuality is something that is pretty central to us all, to who we are, to how we negotiate the world. It makes sense to develop some thinking and reflection about those issues. We need good research about sexuality. We hear all the time that sometimes people don’t have all the right information.
How is the institute forging ahead in the women’s studies field?
One of the things that is quite unique about the institute is that we are able to offer courses that are really kind of cutting edge, and students have a pretty important voice in terms of the curriculum around here.
Do current students appreciate that the Simone de Beauvoir Institute was home to the first women’s s tudies program in Canada?
I think so, yes. [Decades ago], women’s studies didn’t even exist. Even one course on women in society was a huge undertaking. Today, it’s something we try to incorporate in the work we do, an appreciation of history.
Let’s talk about Dr. Lillian Robinson.
She started at the institute in 2000. She started with an impressive background in activism and scholarly works.
What kind of impact did she have when she came to the institute?
I think she really energized the institute in terms of creating a place that was really dynamic. A dynamic place to work, and where feminists in Montreal would get together to talk, exchange ideas, organize political meetings and such. I think she really helped to establish the institute as a really vibrant, intellectual community in Montreal.
She seemed to have an impact not just in women’s studies but all over the university.
I think part of it was her experience – an experienced scholar but also an experienced and committed activist. And I think another thing was an interest and commitment to mentoring other activists. But I think the real answer is that it was her charm. She was such a charming woman, and lovely. So everyone who met her kind of instantly fell in love. And she had a great sense of humour.
What do you see in this transition period, and for the future of the institute?
We’ve started a Dr. Lillian Robinson Scholarship program. That’s with the blessing and endorsement of Lillian, so that we will have resources to bring scholars in, for short stays, for talks and research. That’s an amazing legacy [through] which will carry on her name and her values.