Mary Lou grew up in Toronto, and traces the roots of social activism to a strong emphasis placed by her mother on "helping." It meant "doing good" in the traditional sense, and revolved around accompanying her mother to the Princess Margaret Hospital in downtown Toronto to transform funeral bouquets into "lovely little nosegays" to brighten the rooms of patients. Her mother's helping efforts were church-based, and Home and School, centred on family, nurturing, and "the underdog."
As a family, they were relatively poor in comparison to a "core of the community" that was characterized by great wealth. One marker of this was that Mary Lou's family was the last on their street to get a television set. However, while there may have been less money, she was never "exposed to instability."
Later in her adult life, Mary Lou developed an understanding of herself as someone who was privileged, and the notion of helping became an important component of her everyday life. This orientation became a seedbed for her involvement in women's issues.
As the wife of a young professor, Mary Lou moved in the mid-sixties to Fredericton, where she taught elementary school while completing her B.Ed. and M.Ed. degrees. When she accepted a position as lecturer at New Brunswick Teachers' College, little did she know that this institution was in its last two years of existence and would soon be amalgamated with UNB.
From "second salary" to doctorate
At the time of the breakdown of her first marriage, Mary Lou was working at the university—"usurped from Teacher's College"—for the grand salary of $ 17,000 per annum. The sudden awareness that she would have to look after herself on a salary that was actually lower than what she would have made teaching Grade One came as a shock, and catalyzed a flurry of life changes.
All of a sudden, Mary Lou had to shift her mentality of earning "a second salary, living in somebody else's house with the dream of the white picket fence" to making the changes that would enable her to keep her position at the university. While married, she had viewed her salary as something extra for the family that could be suspended any time she wanted to because the primary breadwinner was her husband. It was not until the marriage breakdown that she began to understand the significance of this mentality, which started her thinking about women's issues in general.
Compelled to take on a doctorate in order to keep teaching at UNB, Mary Lou found herself within three short weeks having to move out of her house, buy a car, head for the University of Pennsylvania with only a map to guide her, and locate an apartment appropriate to her new life as a graduate student.
During her first summer in Pennsylvania, Mary Lou discovered that she was intellectually able and that previous difficulties in school probably had more to do with how she was treated and instructed than her own abilities. But now she was truly on her own, and she realized that summer that her modest, though stable, upbringing had given her privileges that helped her to cope. And she met many independent women and was exposed to "lots and lots of talk about women's issues."
Mary Lou could only do her coursework for the doctorate in the summer, and had to wait seven years for a sabbatical while teaching full time to complete her degree. She received her doctorate in 1985.
t was through this period of time that Mary Lou began to take Women's Issues courses from some of the top people at the University of Pennsylvania. Friendships with two of her professors led to involvement in collaborative research and major changes in her thinking.
Women's equality: "Is it fair?"
During this period, Mary Lou encountered "huge negativism from the old boys' network" in her Faculty at UNB:
I was constantly stirring the pot, trying to counteract what they were doing to me or just bringing it to the surface. I put a huge amount of energy into saying, "You're not fair, you're not fair, you're not fair"—which was an irritation to the men. I kept a file this thick of their actions, and supported others who were being harassed as well. In retrospect, I could have accomplished just as much if not more if I'd been able to put my energy into providing an analysis of their actions as a form of systemic discrimination. But this was not a framework that was available to me then, nor to my most supportive women friends at the time. We didn't have the language or the analysis to make our case persuasively.
Right up to her retirement from UNB, Mary Lou never got to the maximum salary level because her pay had been based on the original $ 17,000.
Attending graduate school in 1975 was her first foray into second wave feminism. Up until then, she had subscribed to the stereotypic notion of feminists as "bra burners." Now she made a major turn in her personal development as she began to understand that that the "f" in "feminism" stood for fair, and that change for women must be measured in terms of equity and not simply by "helping." "The question, Is it fair?" became Mary Lou's mantra and no matter how small or large an issue, she assessed it for equity across gender, class, and other points of disparity. She saw that systemic and cultural values could be the hardest to change.
For Mary Lou, the tension between helping and fairness "was a big paradox" that took her decades more to fully comprehend and resolve.
Younger women today who haven't been through second wave feminism seem to think that things are already fair. They're already juggling work, community, and family and see volunteering as something that requires more nurturing. They don't see the need for making commitments to social action on issues of women's equality.
Mary Lou launched her commitment to women's causes by contributing money—a concrete way of helping while acknowledging that things were unfair.