Last month at the King’s campus bar, student Meg Shields noticed something was missing. A few pints deep, Shields found herself staring at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. She was suddenly struck with anger.
“I noticed that the wall adjacent to her [the Queen] was totally blank. I was sitting with the King’s Students’ Union president and a bunch of other strong female presences on campus, and then I just started ranting about how it was kind of ridiculous that there isn’t representative portraiture of women on a campus predominantly filled with women,” says Shields.
The percentage of female versus male students at King’s is 63 percent to 37 percent. Yet the images that adorn the university are predominately of men.
“The two or three portraits that you’re going to find of ladies are softly lit and there are flowers in the background, compared to the portraits of men who are in these somber robes, looking stately, like they’ve got business, you know? Where as the women look like they’re attending book club or something,” Shields remarks.
Shields has been working alongside several parties at the university to rectify this issue. She sparked the idea for what is now a large-scale project, one that aims to display photographs and portraiture of prominent, notable women from the university’s past and present.
Clara McCaughey, co-president of the Young Alexandra Society at King’s, has also played a key role in the organization of the project. Members of YAS, a society primarily involved in community outreach, have been working in the King’s archives to uncover the portraiture. The detailed timeline they have constructed begins with the university opening its doors to female students in 1891.
“History and tradition are so important at King’s and so emphasized all of the time, but this is an aspect of our history that is mainly covered up,” says McCaughey.
McCaughey suggests this may be due to a lack of variety. The portraits hanging around the university are mainly of past presidents, only two of which have been female.
The Young Alexandra Society has even extended the project further to include a lecture series, which is intended to celebrate the role and significance of women in many of the topics studied at the university.
“I know that my ears perk up in class when a woman is mentioned, and that is a problem. It should be normal for women to be featured in the academic world,” says Shields.
Last week, Eli Diamond, professor in the classics department at Dalhousie University, spoke about the presence of women in the ancient world. Next month, King’s early modern studies professor Jannette Vusich will address the question, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”
Campus-wide interest in these issues has accelerated over the past month. There are now over 30 students and faculty involved in the portraiture project alone. The tentative date for the unveiling of the female portraiture is November 14. The series of photographs and images will hang proudly in the Wardroom, the school’s beloved common space by day and campus bar by night.
Shields and McCaughey say they hope to incorporate these ideas seamlessly into every day life at King’s. They aim to be as inclusive as possible, so that all students will feel comfortable attending the events and engaging in these topics.
“We’re not trying to blame anyone for this,” says McCaughey. “We’re trying to instigate conversation because King’s is such a discussion-based school, and maybe this can bring about change.”