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Leacock Medal and Women Writers

In October 2013, I spent a few days surrounded by thousands of interesting and excited women in Baltimore. It seemed like an okay way to pass the time. My expenses were paid by my hosts, I had extra holidays to burn, and my wife kept her comments to a minimum as I left for the airport.

          The National Conference of the U.S. Society of Women Engineers invited me to speak on the history of gender equality because of a book I had written and because of experiences related to two sad events that bookended the 1980s, a decade when, for the second time, no women appeared on the list of Leacock Medal recipients. My brush with engineering issues frames my perspective on the meagre female representation on the humour-medal winners list.

          One of those sad events left Canada traumatized. On the evening of December 6, 1989, a gunman went through classrooms at l’√Čcole Polytechnique in Montreal shooting female engineering students. Two of the fourteen murder victims and several of those wounded worked during the day for my employer, which, like other organizations, responded to the tragedy with programs and a commitment to increase the representation of women in engineering.

          The other sad event, the November 1980 death of Elsie Gregory MacGill, relates to my book. The book tells Elsie’s life story recounting her experiences as the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer and the driving force on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.

          Polio hit Elsie on the eve of her graduation in 1929, put her in bed and a wheelchair for years, and forced her to pursue a career in a male-dominated profession with a disability. She provided great material for a book.

          In researching the biography and promoting the programs at work, I read enough to know that the issues around gender equality are complex and that the merits of specific responses are debatable. Some women see remedial actions as patronizing; and other measures can backfire by implying that women can’t compete and need help.

          After thinking about this stuff for a quarter of a century and in a big way for the past decade, I find myself certain of only one thing--the positive impact of role models like Elsie. Seeing or learning about someone whom you admire and whom you resemble doing well in a field motivates you with the image of possibility.

          Perversely, female enrollment in engineering schools doubled in the 1990s partly because of the profile women in engineering received after the Montreal tragedy. It caused young women to think about such a career.

          I’m not sure why the Leacock Medal has not been awarded to more women over the years. Some people have ideas. You don’t have to Google too long or scratch too deep to find musings about how tough women in comedy have it or to find flat statements, such as in a 2007 Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens,[1] to the effect that women are just “not funny.”

          But the Leacock award has a particular context and feels forces beyond what might be explained by broader gender issues or by the brutality of comedy performed on stage. Female writers, excellent ones, abound in Canada, and you could even suggest that women have interests that align well with Leacockian humour.

          You might also feel awkward arguing an inherent bias in the Leacock Medal, given the number of family-oriented themes and the three women among the early winners of the award. But something happened after this initial spurt. A quarter century passed before Sondra Gotlieb expanded the list of women by one, and only two other women have won the medal since: Marsha Boulton in 1996 and Cassie Stocks in 2013. Six out of (the now) sixty-eight in total, something less than a tenth, is certainly statistically significant of something--of what exactly, aside from the pervasiveness of gender bias, though, I’m not sure.[2]

          But I am certain that there have been other funny female writers, and if more women emulated people like Boulton and Stocks, Canada would benefit. I think that the Leacock Medal program would risk little and gain a lot by making a special effort to promote its female winners, maybe by naming one of its awards for student writers in their honour. The competition would be open to both genders, but the message in the award name would be that women should compete and can be funny, too.

          I know that women can be funny--because of the look on my wife’s face when I first told her about the invitation to Baltimore.[3]

[1] Christopher Hitchens, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Vanity Fair, January 2007, (accessed January 2, 2014).
[2] Even now, a significant majority of entrants in the annual Leacock Medal competition are male (Leacock Associates President Michael Hill, email to DBD March 14, 2014).  In 2015, one woman was short listed Zarqa Nawaz, author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque: she didn't win.
[3] “So, you’re the only Dick at this event” was her first response.