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A room of their own
PHOTO: McGILL ARCHIVES
| There was a time when the residents of Royal Victoria College were not allowed into the dining room of their all-women's residence in slacks or shorts.
That was during the '40s and '50s under the reign of Muriel V. Roscoe. The college's formidable seventh warden was fond of saying, "There is discipline as useful as it is unobstrusive such as girls standing when the warden enters the room."
Stanley Frost, director of the History of McGill Project, chuckles as he describes Roscoe. "Oh, her reign was very tight. Some remember RVC as pretty grim back then because the girls led a very regimented life."
Flash forward to the 1980s: Florence Tracy begins her term as warden. She is affectionately referred to as "Flo" by all. Slacks and shorts are no longer taboo, nor do the girls have to stand at attention when Flo enters the room.
But "being an RVC girl still meant being inaccessible," says Nahira Keshavjee.
In 1981, Keshavjee was a first-year English literature student fresh from Calgary. She recounts how, despite its protective environment, RVC "smacked of our parents' morality. So we were sometimes very, very bad," she says, laughing. "Some drank. And there were those girls who signed boys in at 10:00 pm, and signed them out at 10:00 am. "That was quite a statement of individuality in 1981."
February 2000: Flo continues as the college's beloved warden and the student advisors are still referred to as floor fellows and dons.
Today, girl power rules, says Tamana Kochar, RVC's assistant warden and a management student. "Girl power means a whole lot of things, like sisterhood. It also means sharing clothes, having brunch in our pjs, watching Felicity and sitting in the hallways gossiping."
Engineering student Kat Lai, who sits on the in-house council, takes care of what she calls the mattress thing. "When residents have guests staying overnight, say it's a boy you don't know that well, RVC lends out mattresses so they can sleep over and be comfortable."
Being an RVC girl no longer means being inaccessible. "Now, it's an address, 3425 University," says Keshavjee. Today's residents refer to the college as The Rez.
The Rez turns 100 this year, celebrating a rich, colourful history peopled with a cast of feisty gals, and a couple of gentlemen.
It was founded in 1899 as a residential college where women both lived and studied. In 1884, Donald A. Smith, a gentleman indeed who later became Lord Strathcona, had begun providing for women's education in the form of separate classes. He eventually donated the funds for opening the Royal Victoria College and female students were known as "Donaldas" in honour of their benefactor.
The college was named after Queen Victoria, whose bronzed image still sits regally on the steps of the original building on Sherbrooke and University Streets, now occupied by the Faculty of Music.
The integration of women into the all-male classes at McGill marked the beginning of co-ed education at the University.
"What a history!" says Tracy, who has been warden since 1980 and is also McGill's director of Residences and Student Housing. "RVC was established because women were not treated equally in the classroom and could not get degrees. It is a symbol for that struggle."
Until 1970, all women undergraduates were also members of RVC. Only those students whose families lived in Montreal or who had been given permission to live off-campus by their parents or guardians were allowed to reside outside of the protective environment of the college during their studies.
Today, RVC is McGill's only traditional all-women residence. Douglas, Molson, McConnell and Gardner Hall, which house about 825 students, are co-ed. RVC houses about 270 women from around the world.
"Today, RVC may not have the same presence on campus academically. But year after year, it has continued to be a community within a community providing a safe, nurturing environment where women grow and develop during their years at McGill," says Tracy.
Kochar arrived from Kuwait to settle in RVC when she was 18 years old. "I was coming from the Middle East, so it was a bit of a culture shock and a weather shock, from the desert to the snow.
"When I first saw the buildings, they looked so ancient, and there were all of these old paintings on the walls in the halls of RVC. There was such a sense of heritage," she says.
When she first heard of Smith (Strathcona), she remembers thinking, "There were Lords here?"
As Frost puts it, throughout its history RVC has provided young women coming to Canada as a foreign country a place where girls can have a truly collegial experience while helping them to find their feet in the Western world.
"In any large society, we need smaller groupings because we can get lost in the great big pond. It's what fraternities and sororities used to provide, but of course they developed unhealthy practices and have fallen out of favour."
Kochar chose RVC over the other residences with the help of her mom. "Coming from far away, my parents were concerned with my having a safe environment. RVC helped me to adjust to the University. The Rez experience made everything a whole lot better, easing the transition from living at home."
Like many residents, she moved out to live on her own in her second year and learned to do things like cooking and cleaning. Kochar later returned because she missed The Rez's support system, especially the older residents who so readily offered advice.
"You cannot underestimate the importance of meeting people in residence, and of making lasting friendships. In first year, you're living with students who are in the same courses, so you study together. That's how a lot of people hook up with roommates if they move out."
She also missed watching Friends with her cohorts and, she admits, the food.
"The chicken fingers and Rice Krispies squares are great. It's not my mom's food. I'm used to more spicy things. But I can't complain about the choice."
Lai didn't come from as far away as Kochar. She hails from Calgary. But her parents encouraged her to stay at RVC because "they thought, if it's all-women there's less of a chance of things happening that parents think can only happen when you're living co-ed." Lai herself looked forward to an all-women's residence because, she says, "I didn't want to be getting out of the shower to find some guy staring at me naked."
She has also found that women at RVC tend to be less self-conscious. "A lot of girls tend to judge themselves based on a guy's perception of them. I don't feel that here. I can walk around in my fuzzy slippers, and it doesn't matter."
Unlike Kochar, however, she doesn't like the cafeteria food, but like her RVC sister, she loves the incredible female friendships that develop in The Rez. She describes life there as a "giant slumber party, hanging around, doing facial masks and just being girls."
Ironically, Frost points out that the shoe has swung to the other foot.
"We are finding out from psychologists and others that there is now a very real anxiety among boys because girls are beating them at their own game."
Girls mature faster than boys physically, emotionally and mentally, making it easier for them to tackle, for instance, languages and mathematics, says Frost. "It's a new twist to an old problem."
However, having the freedom to just be girls is as important today as it was in the early 1980s, says Keshavjee, who was a resident from 1981-1987 and served as a don and assistant warden.
"My parents thought RVC was the ideal place for young women going from the west to the big, bad east. They sent me from one cocoon to another.
"RVC meant take care of our daughters," says the writer, ardent feminist and mother of two. "It was not big and bad, so I stayed."
In her two decades as RVC warden, Tracy says that her young charges have continued to deal with similar things, such as sexual relationships, the pressure to succeed and be perfect and questions about where they're going.
She ends on a note both cautionary and celebratory: "Even though 'we walked very warily' (this echoes the title of Margaret Gillett's 1980 book on the history of women at McGill), it's still hard for a woman to be evaluated equally with men. They still have a lot of responsibility, for child-bearing and rearing.
"But RVC provides women with an extremely valuable environment where they see the benefits of sisterhood and community. It's been 21 years, and I love it. They're so refreshing, they keep me young."