As a teacher, university president and leading advocate of women’s rights, Margaret Fulton once playfully called herself “a slightly radical feminist still proudly bearing the revolutionary spirit of my peace-loving, pioneering, prairie Protestant ancestors.”
When Dr. Fulton became president of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University in 1978, she was the only female president of a co-educational university in Canada. In her installation address, she told her audience that there was “only one basic fact worth concentrating on: Either we change the patterns of our human social behaviour, or as a society we self-destruct.”
Throughout her life, Dr. Fulton advocated different ways of thinking and acting that were based on equality and collectivity. “I continue to hold the belief,” she said in 1979, “that a participatory-learning society will eventually replace a spectator-consumer society.”
Dr. Fulton, who died in Victoria last month, put her beliefs into action while serving as president of Mount Saint Vincent until 1986. She ushered in an era of great innovation at the university, said Ramona Lumpkin, the university’s current president and vice-chancellor. “She was so passionate about the education of women. She wanted to start to open the doors and the ivory tower to women.”
Under Dr. Fulton’s leadership, Mount Saint Vincent moved to make education more accessible to women by introducing televised courses for distance education, becoming the first university in Atlantic Canada to do so. She worked tenaciously to help raise $3.5-million for the university’s first major capital campaign to fund a student centre, create Canada’s first Chair of Women’s Studies and establish the first co-operative education program in the Maritimes.
Dr. Fulton continued to support the university until last year. Dr. Lumpkin would periodically receive sizable cheques from her in the mail. “I can spare another $10,000,” Dr. Fulton would write. “I know I’m not going to live that much longer.”
“Margaret’s generosity of heart was just incredible,” Dr. Lumpkin said. “She never lost her desire to grow and to learn new things and reach out to people.”
Born on Sept. 8, 1922, on a farm in southwestern Manitoba near the town of Birtle, Dr. Fulton was the youngest of seven children born to Ernest and Ethel Fulton. The importance of the lifelong quest for knowledge and spiritual understanding were stressed to her at an early age. On the farm, industriousness and the value of women’s work were also recognized. It was there that the foundations of her belief in building a society and social order based on collaboration and community were formed.
“She grew up where women were equal partners. That formed her beliefs,” said her nephew Geoff Fulton. “She wasn’t anti-men. She just thought everyone should be equal.”
After graduating from high school in 1942, she began her teaching career at the one-room Penrith School in rural western Manitoba. She discovered that, as a woman, she would not experience the equality she had on her family’s farm.
“At a teachers’ conference in Winnipeg in 1943, she first learned that male teachers were automatically paid higher salaries than women who had the same qualifications and who were often doing more demanding jobs, since they almost always got heavier class loads,” wrote James Doyle in his book Transformations: The Life of Margaret Fulton, Canadian Feminist, Educator and Social Activist. “This early experience of the systemic discrimination against working women, besides reinforcing her feminist resolve to devote herself to social reform, determined her to work all the harder at her profession.”
Describing Dr. Fulton as an intensely political person, a proud Canadian and a Christian, the academic and feminist Ursula Franklin said her friend’s convictions permeated everything she did. “Her beliefs always translated into action.”
During the war years, she spent her summers working on her family’s farm. In 1947, with the war over, her brothers returned to take up farming and Dr. Fulton took a teaching job at the Fort William Vocational School in Thunder Bay, Ont. Committed to lifelong learning, she eventually pursued her PhD at the University of Toronto, studying Thomas Carlyle’s public lectures. She was also don of a residence and taught part-time at York
Her nephew, Sheldon Fulton, remembers as a Grade 11 student visiting his aunt in Toronto in 1965. During a tour of the university campus, she told her nephew indignantly that female students were not allowed into Hart House, the university’s student centre. And when Massey College opened its doors in 1963, she was among a small group of women standing outside, protesting its lack of female fellows.
In 1967, Dr. Fulton accepted a teaching position at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University) and spent the next seven years there.
But she became increasingly frustrated by what she saw as the hierarchical nature of Canadian universities and the dominance of male academics. Twice she lost competitions for teaching positions to male candidates from the United States despite having the same qualifications.
“She was outspoken. She was not a person to be politically correct,” Geoff Fulton said.
While she didn’t strive to see as many women as men on the boards of all the major corporations or universities in Canada, her belief was in equality as a principle – that everyone should be treated equally, Mr. Fulton said.
With the strengthening feminist movement in the early 1970s, Dr. Fulton believed it was time for universities to have a dean of women, someone who could advocate for women and help change the university’s patriarchal culture. In 1974, she took on that position at the University of British Columbia and remained there for four years.
Throughout her life, Dr. Fulton lived simply. In Halifax, while she was president of Mount Saint Vincent, she lived in a small apartment, ate frequently with students at the university’s cafeteria and enjoyed watching university basketball games.
While she had romantic partners in her life, she never married nor had children.
At Christmas, she was known to show up at family dinners, where her two dozen nieces and nephews were gathered. With the idea of shaping their young minds, she would deliver books she had chosen specifically for each of them.
“She was hard to keep up with,” Mr. Fulton said. “She was a vibrant mind.”
Known for her sharp wit, she loved to have fun with people. At one large women’s event, Dr. Fulton noticed that her friend and politician Flora MacDonald looked particularly fancy. “Oh Flora, you look like the best-dressed of the circus horses,” she told her.
“She had the freedom to be funny,” Dr. Franklin said. “Much of her teaching formally and informally was based on giving people the freedom to laugh both at themselves, at their silly structures and at her,” she added.
In 1986, after leaving Halifax, she returned to the University of British Columbia as an adjunct professor and consultant. At the time, she was also involved in the establishment of a new feminist university in Loten, Norway, and was invited to become a scholar-in-residence.
When Dr. Fulton retired from university life in 1996, she moved to Salt Spring Island. But her activism in politics, social issues and feminism didn’t end. She frequently gave lectures and was involved in campaigns. Dr. Fulton was one of the first people to endorse Elizabeth May as a candidate for the Green Party of Canada in British Columbia. “She had a tremendous ability to connect with people,” Ms. May said. “She was so passionate.”
Dr. Fulton’s life wasn’t without tragedy. One rainy night while she and her two sisters were on their way to the symphony in Victoria, a car struck them at an intersection. The accident left Mary, Dr. Fulton’s sister, dead and her own foot severely injured. When a surgeon told her, then a woman in her eighties, that he needed to amputate her foot, she objected. “‘No’, she told him. ‘I need that,’” Ms. May recalled. “She was such a fighter.” Determined to walk again, she worked doggedly to heal herself and eventually get back on the golf course.
For her work, Dr. Fulton received 15 honorary degrees and was named to the Order of
“She truly engaged with the world,” Mr. Fulton said.
Dr. Fulton died on Jan. 22, at the Victoria General Hospital, after suffering a stroke. She was 91. She is survived by her sister Eva Robinson, seven nieces, 17 nephews, a large extended family and numerous friends.
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