In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989

For women in engineering, things changed forever when their lives were stolen:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard,  Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

On November 1, 1989, I started my job as the first female tenure track professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta –  the only woman in a faculty of about 140 male professors.  That was just 20 years ago –  unbelievable for one of Canada’s largest universities.  Of course, when you wrap your brain around the fact that just 90 years ago women were considered property, and not even allowed to vote or hold office, I guess maybe it’s not all that surprising.

To say  I was a oddity would probably be an understatement.  I can remember being interviewed on radio and in the newspaper.  I can remember going to engineering faculty council and being totally intimidated as the only woman in a meeting with 140 men.  I can remember going to the faculty Christmas party and having many people ask me which of the professors was my husband.  I can remember getting a call from one of those professor’s wives inviting me to join the engineering wives for tea on Wednesday afternoons – and I remember that she was amazed when I said I couldn’t because I had a lab to teach at that time.   I can remember the Dean making me give a lecture to the entire first year engineering class of 600+ students (probably 90% men) each fall, so that they would all have at least one lecture from a woman professor during their 4 year program.  One lecture out of thousands…  pretty sad. (He even asked me to talk about “women in engineering” – which I refused, so he let me give a technical talk instead.)  I can remember being mistaken for a secretary by professors, graduate students and undergraduates on a daily basis.  I can remember being treated like a ‘second-class’ professor by secretaries.  And barely one month into the job I can remember the darkest day ever for women in engineering.

Just after 4 pm on December 6, 1989 a man carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada and shot dozens of people.  He killed fourteen…  all women…  most were engineering students.  In the twenty years since, these women have been remembered each December in memorial ceremonies at engineering schools across Canada and around the world.  Probably every Canadian who remembers, or knows about, this event could name the murderer, but sadly few would be able to name even one of his victims.  So I will name them here – but I will not name him.  Never him.

The fourteen women who lost their lives that day were:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Did their deaths have meaning ? Of course not.  It was a senseless act of violence against women.  Did it make a difference?  Undoubtedly.  Perhaps not in terms of invoking better gun control laws as many (including me) might have hoped, but in terms of changing the school and working environment for women in engineering – absolutely.  Here are the things that vanished from my work world:

  • Godiva rides during engineering week – in my undergraduate days at UNB (~1980), this actually involved driving a topless stripper through campus on the back of a pickup truck. (They didn’t even have the class to use a horse!)  Some years later they were still doing this at the UofA – they had the girl on a horse, but faked the nudity.
  • Objectification of women in lectures – it was a routine practice to slip the occasional slide of naked or scantily dressed women into engineering lectures (and instructional movies) – to keep the ‘men’ in the audience attentive.
  • Beauty (princess) pageants – this was still a big part of engineering week at UofA up to 1989 – one professor at our engineering faculty council (ya, the 140 men and me) actually argued that this should be allowed to continue because “it teaches young men manners, such as to open doors for women.”  He wasn’t keen on balancing that with a Prince’s Pageant though. He thought that was just plain silly.
  • Nude women on posters and calendars – these were ubiquitous in engineering labs and offices – both on and off campus – right up until the late 1980’s.
  • Sexual harassment of women in engineering – until at least the early 80’s it was commonplace for male students to pinch or slap women on the ass, or to ‘goose’ them – for example as they leaned over to look through a survey instrument.  The practice among older men in the profession to make sexually suggestive remarks to female colleagues and students was still rampant in the later 80’s.

It’s sad to think that in the late 1980’s women in engineering were still expected to put up with so many of these humiliating practices and attitudes.  Most women engineers would never even consider speaking out against them – lest they be branded “feminist” – a very dirty word indeed in those days – at least in engineering circles.  We engineering women strove to ‘fly under the radar’, to ‘not make waves’, lest we wear out our welcome (such as it was) in the engineering world.

The massacre at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 was unquestionably the turning point in changing these  attitudes – it caused a complete paradigm shift, at least in the engineering schools across Canada.  The murderer was a self-proclaimed anti-feminist, and so for men to continue to harbour these antiquated attitudes immediately invoked a comparison to this murderer’s attitudes and thus (by default) his actions.  And so it finally became unfashionable to be chauvinistic in one of the last bastions of male chauvinism.  As a result, women were no longer reluctant to complain about chauvinistic practices in engineering.

I’m sure it would be little consolation to the victims or their families to know that this massacre forever changed the work and school environment for women in engineering for the better.  But as one of the women in engineering who has benefited immensely by those changes – I will forever honour these women in my memory.  Ladies – you will never be forgotten – and your loss will forever be mourned.

© Faye Hicks 2009

About Faye Hicks

Writer, animal lover, retired engineer, and professor emeritus.
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9 Responses to In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989

  1. Anita M says:

    I often tell myself that the world is becoming a better place – and that many sad historical events were “a long time ago”.

    But then it’s a very chilling thought to realize that the 80’s were really not that long ago…

    You were very courageous in the early months of your career…

  2. first50 says:

    I honor these women as well:
    “The fourteen women who lost their lives that day were: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.”

  3. gigi says:

    My niece is working as an engineer and I wonder often how hard it still is. I call myself feminist, always have & always will, but she will not.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Thnaks for the comment, gigi. I can’t really blame your neice – I find it hard to label myself as a femminist, too. Most women engineers are still reluctant to do so. But at least we’re speaking out on the issues finally.

  4. Shelley says:

    I was just re-reading some of my blog comments and thought I would venture over here on a rather casual note. What I found was a very somber message.

    As an American, I often think of the north as a wilderness frontier. However, it is more the male dominated professions that proves to be. What a pioneer you were in the field of engineering to open doors for other women to enter.

    I was shocked to read this, but more shocked that it took me reading your blog to learn of it. I’m not sure why, or where I was in my personal life at the time. So sad, that these women possessed the intelligence and the perseverance to overcome obstacles this field presented only to have their lives taken from them.

    I am not a feminist, but I do believe that women deserve the respect for who they are and what they’ve accomplished because they are human.

    Thank you again for visiting my blog. Without doing that, I would have remained ignorant to such a newsworthy event, even if it is 20 years late.

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989 « Faye Hicks's Blog --

  6. Now I know why so many people love this site, nice contribution. Thanks

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