In her own words, the study of history seems to have chosen Alison Prentice rather than the reverse. The experiences she had on her meandering path to becoming a university professor clearly informed her seminal work, which told the forgotten stories of Canadian women, in all their diversities.
She was renowned in academic circles as a distinguished scholar who specialized in the history of education and women’s history in Canada. She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2013 for her pioneering research, and her work as a teacher and mentor at York University and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where she was instrumental in establishing its Centre for Women’s Studies in Education.
Despite her remarkable accomplishments as a path-breaking feminist historian, Dr. Prentice never sought personal fame or glory, her loved ones and peers say. An enthusiastic collaborator, she was often the glue that held many things together: her own family, book projects and collegial excursions.
Whether it was taking a genuine interest in her young niece’s childhood or overseeing the work of graduate students under her academic supervision, she always welcomed people with a wide smile and kind eyes, encouraging them to share their thoughts and opinions. She had a penchant for comfortable clothing in browns and oranges, and an adventurous streak that saw her taking canoe trips with friends and family. She was also a passionate advocate for social justice and environmental issues, joining marches and protests to voice her opinions.
Dr. Prentice died on June 25 in Victoria. She was 86. She chose to end her life through medical assistance in dying (MAID), her son Douglas Prentice said. She had been living with Parkinson’s disease, and saw signs suggesting the onset of dementia. She had been a caregiver for her husband, Jim Prentice, a retired University of Toronto physicist, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He died in January, 2018.
“A decade in dementia struck her as not only a waste of time, but inflicting unnecessary suffering on everyone she loved,” her son, Douglas, said in a phone interview. Dr. Prentice was just as methodical in choosing her death as she was in life, he added. She assembled a group of seven family members and close friends to bid farewell.
“She told me it was not only okay, but she kind of hoped I would tell all and sundry after the fact her reasoning for choosing MAID. Basically she didn’t want people to be afraid of MAID,” he said. “Mom left this world in a circle of love, a circle of prayer and a circle of music.”
Born Alison Leeds Smith in Wilmington, Del., on July 8, 1934, she was the younger of two daughters. Her father, Walter Dent Smith, worked in public service in Delaware and New York before the family moved to Toronto in 1939. Her mother, Elizabeth (née Fletcher) Smith, was primarily a homemaker, Mr. Prentice said.
“There is a family story that her mother was involved in political agitation to make discussion and education around birth control legal in the 19th century,” he added.
The Fletcher family had an aristocratic background but had fallen on hard times. The menfolk gambled, left or died young, or in her grandfather’s case, drank, Dr. Prentice noted in a personal essay.
As a girl, Alison frequently visited her maternal family home in Maryland, which had “a crumbling, overgrown quality to it, with abandoned slave quarters, old carriage sheds, and other outbuildings still standing,” Dr. Prentice wrote in the essay. Her great aunt Alice Cox managed the estate, as did her mother before her. Perry Hall left a lasting impression on her.
Summer months spent first as a camper and then a counsellor at Taylor Statten Camp in Algonquin Park also influenced her, instilling in her an abiding love for the Canadian outdoors.
A school girl’s interest in contemporary history, along with the events such as the end of the Second World War, sparked a curiosity in young Alison’s mind. However, it was a year-long study trip to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1953 that sealed her fate. While enrolled in liberal arts at the women-only Smith College in Massachusetts, she accepted an opportunity to study abroad, and ended up falling in love with history.
In Europe she also started to reflect on her own privileged life in North America. When she returned to Smith College, her thesis adviser noted her interest in education as a subject, and suggested she explore the Manitoba Schools Question.
The assignment sent Dr. Prentice to Toronto Public Library archives to research the historic controversy around the creation of a single, non-denominational English-language school system. Thus began her lifelong pursuit.
Upon graduation, she started out as a teacher at her alma mater, the Bishop Strachan School, and later at Harbord Collegiate – the latter position came after she earned a master’s degree from the University of Toronto in 1955. She quickly discovered the challenges faced by female educators. Married in 1960 to “the love of her life,” she was pregnant with her first child when she found out that she couldn’t continue teaching after her fifth month of pregnancy.
By the time she decided to pursue a doctorate in 1967, she was a mother of two young sons, Douglas and Matthew. It took seven years for her to complete the degree, during which time she continued to teach as well as manage a busy household.
“In the mid-1970s we found a note pinned to the fridge, and it said, ‘I quit! The housework is now to be shared between you three!’ So Dad, Matthew and I sat down and organized a competitive point system” for household chores, Mr. Prentice said. The winner got to pick the movie they went out to watch on Saturday nights. “She found it hilarious. And eventually when she got over being mad, she took down the sheet with three columns [for the points] and put one with four columns in it.”
Her PhD thesis eventually became her first book, The School Promoters: Education and Social Class in Mid-Nineteenth Century Upper Canada, a considered analysis of the social-control motives of figures such as Egerton Ryerson to establish schools that would teach children respectable behaviour. The book became an instant classic and a foundational text for educators.
While teaching at York University’s Atkinson College, she developed and taught one of Canada’s first postsecondary courses on women’s history. Her work at OISE laid the groundwork for generations of graduate students to focus their scholarly inquiry on the experiences of women.
“When Alison first started doing that research, there was very little [research on women’s role in Canadian society] – and honestly, she developed it,” said Paula Bourne, a retired senior research associate at OISE, and who co-authored Canadian Women: A History, along with Dr. Prentice and four other women.
Ms. Bourne first met Dr. Prentice as a fellow student at a graduate class at OISE in 1967. She had recently moved to Canada from England, and they struck up a friendship. She soon came to see Dr. Prentice as a big sister. Newly married, but with no family to help in new surroundings, Ms. Bourne was “desperate” when her first child was born.
“I thought I’d never be able to sleep again,” she said. " I remember [Dr. Prentice] just came over to [my] house. She was very calm. She brought toys that her children had played with. She sat with me. She made me tea. She helped me see there was a life after birth.
“[She had] that humility, that deep down humanity, over and above all her achievements.”
Then there was her fortitude. Dr. Prentice’s younger son, Matthew, died in a car accident when their car was struck by a drunk driver. He was 15. Dr. Prentice was also injured in the accident, but buried herself with work as soon as she was out of the hospital. It was a way for both his parents to cope, Mr. Prentice said.
While many academics favour solitary academic pursuits, Dr. Prentice always sought to collaborate, Ms. Bourne said. She was told it wouldn’t be easy to corral six women together to publish a scholarly text.
“She got people to co-operate and we all got along incredibly,” Ms. Bourne said of the process of writing Canadian Women: A History. Now in its third edition, it’s still taught in Canadian universities. “We wrote that book around our kitchen tables. … We all did our own chapters, and then we passed them around and everybody made comments.”
Many meetings were held at the Prentice home in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, Mr. Prentice recalled.
“I’d be upstairs in my room, and I’d hear heated arguments from downstairs. And Mom was always the voice of calm, trying to draw people together into a consensus. It was amazing, and inspiring,” he said.
For Kari Dehli, a retired sociology professor from OISE, Dr. Prentice was at first a feminist faculty member who created space to pose questions around women’s labour, then a supportive senior colleague who offered frank advice, and finally a friend whom she accompanied on canoe trips through Algonquin Park.
Even when disagreements arose, Dr. Prentice was always open to other perspectives, Dr. Dehli said. She didn’t suffer fools, but always offered constructive comments.
“She was patient, she really listened,” she added. “There was a whole pedagogy of where you worked with students, rather than coming down on them. … Her research was serious, but she had the capacity of not taking herself very seriously.”
Even after retiring and moving to Victoria with her husband, Dr. Prentice continued to contribute to historical research and literature. The couple were also politically active and passionate environmentalists. They were avid canoeists and yoga practitioners, seeking adventures on land and water.
In 2020, Dr. Prentice published Adventures With Jim, a memoir created from her late husband’s collection of letters, journal entries and photos. The limited-run book became a treasured keepsake for family and friends. In her last days, she was busy researching the history of Fletcher women, on her mother’s side of the family, examining letters exchanged between her mother and aunts.
“She always had some project on the go,” Ms. Bourne said.
Dr. Prentice was predeceased by her son Matthew and her husband. She leaves her son Douglas and grandsons, Theo and Guthrie, as well as extended family and a wide circle of friends and colleagues.