|An Interview with Marilou McPhedran: Feminist and Human Rights Lawyer
|| PRINTABLE VERSION
It is clear after an hour-long phone interview with Marilou McPhedran that she is passionate about women’s rights and social justice. It may come as no surprise, then, that McPhedran is a human rights lawyer, specializing in women’s legal rights. She has provided leadership to women’s organizations locally and internationally; has authored over two dozen articles and reports; and has founded and currently co-directs the International Women’s Rights Project at the University of Victoria, Centre for Global Studies (in British Columbia, Canada).
But how did she get where she is today? What were the major influences that led her to this life work?
As the first born in a family of all girls, McPhedran was fortunate to be very independent from her parents at an early age. Growing up in rural Neepawa, Manitoba (this writer’s home province!), allowed her and her younger sisters the freedom to roam the grounds near her family home, on horseback no less, as they were all skilled riders by the time they were 6 years old. Daughter of a veterinarian, McPhedran believes that this freedom given to her as a child gave her the motivation to work for human rights – simply put, for the freedom of others. Relative to other members in the community, McPhedran’s family was well-off. “I had access, choices and opportunities that at the time were natural and invisible to me.”
When McPhedran became financially responsible for herself at 18, she began to realize that the freedom and opportunity she had from early childhood on, was a privilege. “I had internalized it as a right, but my more mature analysis made me realize that it was a privilege accorded to a tiny population of the world that I had been lucky enough to be born into. What I had - the privilege of enjoying personal freedom and genuine choices - should in fact be extended to girls and boys all over the world.”
At 15, McPhedran experienced what she describes as “a wake-up call.” She began to understand that there was unequal distribution of privilege in Canada and in a global context. This she learned from the international and inner-city projects she was involved in as a young teenager. One particular project involved fundraising and collecting books then shipping them to St. Lucia schools, but it wasn’t until she volunteered as a child and family care worker in Winnipeg’s inner-city, that she realized the irony of assuming poverty was only in “developed” nations. “Even in Canada, we were perpetuating economic and social disadvantage to our First Nations people, in ways that were at least as terrible in St. Lucia, that I thought was so far away from Canada.”
At the University of Winnipeg (also in Manitoba) she chose to pursue Religious Studies, because McPhedran knew she was an inquisitive and interested scholar, and found the diversity of Religious Studies to be just what she was looking for. What she wasn’t looking for, was in her first year of university (“freshman”) to be picked out of a crowd and asked to run for a campus beauty contest of sorts. She was completely shocked that anyone would find her attractive. McPhedran looks back on this time and cringes, since she entered the competition and won to become “the freshie queen”.
McPhedran relives this “embarrassing” anecdote because it became relevant when she decided to run for student government. She entered her candidature for the position of President in 1971. McPhedran won, and was the first woman to become president of the student association at the University of Winnipeg – but some people had a hard time accepting her.
“In the year that I was student president…many of the experiences that actually taught me a lot were actually quite traumatic because they were drenched in sexism. A lot of what was said to me, done to me, tried to be done to me, probably was fed by the simple fact that I was a woman. And it was complicated by the fact that everybody knew that I had been the “freshie queen.” McPhedran was only 19 years old at the time.
“I learned the hard way that when you’re a woman you don’t get to just ‘do things on your own merit.’ You don’t get to have the same credibility or authority that’s usually given to a male when you’re in a position of responsibility. A lot of things can happen in front of your face or behind your back that are motivated by misogyny. And I learned all of those in really hard ways.”
She moved to Toronto after that year and realized. “No matter what, I would never allow myself to be dependent financially on a man, and that whatever I did with my education and my training I had to make sure that I had the capacity to support myself so that I could be making my own choices.”
The following part of the article recorded in interview style, tracks Marilou McPhedran’s experiences and reactions to academia, law school, feminism, and international peacekeeping.
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Fantastic article! Jane Poata
| Jul 14th, 2009
Thanks for your inspired choice to interview Marilou McPhedran. I would like to show my high school students your work as an example of what they could do in the research component of our next unit.
Great Read! Charity Fadun
| Mar 12th, 2005
This is the best interview I've read in a long long time. Very well done. I learnt a lot.
| Mar 16th, 2005
thanks for your comments - i appreciate the feedback. MM is a really fascinating person -- she has a very inspiring personnality!
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