Opinion-Policy Nexus

Jill Vickers is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Emeritus Professor at Carleton University. According to her bio, “Dr. Vickers is a renowned authority in the politics of women’s rights, comparative approaches to women’s participation, and the relationship between gender and nationalism. She is the author of numerous books and articles, among them Politics as if Women Mattered: a Political Analysis of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, co-authored with L. Pauline Rankin and Christine Appelle (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994); Re-inventing Political Science: A Feminist Approach (Halifax: Fernwood Press, 1997); and Gender, Race and Nation: A Global Approach, co-authored with Vanaja Druhvarajan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).”

Not only was she an academic trailblazer, a giant in the field, and an extremely productive scholar during her career, she was and remains active in the practice of politics, advising parliamentary committees, government departments, international organizations, and civil society actors on a variety of topics.

I’ve never met Dr. Vickers, but I’ve long admired her work and have heard many scholars speak highly of her as a mentor and human being.  On a personal level, her work constantly reminds me of the need to take all of my research seriously, if only because it can have an important impact on the real world of politics.

Below is the interview with Dr. Vickers.  I’ve edited it lightly so all remaining errors are my own.


I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

that developing feminist political science would take decades to achieve.  Even getting to first base required: building structures to foster communication and cooperation, producing enough research to mount ‘women and politics’ courses, recruiting students to take them, persuading enough colleagues that the project had value and winning tenure at a time when most colleagues considered the research to be ‘not really political science’.  Had I known all of this at the beginning of my career, I would have paced myself better.

The individual I most admire academically

is Professor Teresa Rakowska Harmstone.  When I began teaching at Carleton, she was the only other woman in political science and was one of the discipline’s few senior women in the 1970s with an international reputation for her work on Soviet nationalities policy and on the military in the USSR.  She and I were poles apart in rank and status, ideologically and academically.  I was a very junior scholar, a feminist, union activist and a nationalist; she was an internationalist and more conservative, although she has become a committed feminist since she retired to Warsaw.  From her I learned that academics could disagree ideologically while still respecting one another; and that asserting the justice of my claims wasn’t enough, I also had to test and verify them empirically.  To gain and maintain her support, my research had to meet her very high standards of excellence.  My mentor for 35 years, she was the kind of academic I aspired to be.

My best research project during my career

is my current project about the interaction of gender and nationalism in different waves of nation-state formation.  It is also my most long-lasting project since I published my first article on the theme nearly three decades ago.  It was in trying to understand the relationship between francophone feminists and Quebec nationalism which first grabbed by interest. This led to a (still on-going) dialogue with Professor Micheline De Sève, the distinguished feminist political scientist at UQAM, in which we compared differences in how feminists interact with Quebec and English-Canadian nationalism.  The project later expanded beyond Canada/Quebec, becoming global in scope. It still excites me because of what it reveals about how gender, power and legitimacy interact in the making of modern nation-states.  I am writing the ‘big book’ on the theme currently.

My worst research project during my career

was when I tried to compare women’s movements with other social movements.  The participant observation I undertook with Pauline Rankin and Christine Appelle, which resulted in Politics As If Women Mattered, showed that social movement theory didn’t explain feminist activism and women’s movements.  The project tried to map different kinds of movements as they interacted with the three levels of governments in ten Ontario communities.  But the internet emerged in the middle of the project, becoming the key tool used by many movements and I was ill equipped to incorporate this technological change into the project.  So although the project produced some good articles and theses, it failed to achieve my theoretical objectives.

The most memorable experience when I was doing research

was writing texts to help teach women in the Yemen to understand federalism and its effects on organized women.  International agencies and ‘great powers’ often consider power-sharing as the way to solve intractable security problems such as the one posed by the conflict in the Yemen.  But when they impose such ‘solutions’, they pay little attention to the problems that power-sharing create for women.  For example, in Iraq a serious result is the fragmentation of family law that religious elites in each confessional community now control. Anticipating that a federal, power-sharing deal may well be imposed on the parties in the Yemen, UN Women recruited me to explain how different federal arrangements have affected women in different countries.  Putting my knowledge at the service of women in circumstances so different from my own was especially memorable … as was my first publication in Arabic! 

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

Four years ago, I was registered for the CPSA banquet by a young student who politely asked for my name.  When I said ‘Jill Vickers’, she said very briskly, “You can’t be Jill Vickers. She’s dead.”  I showed her my credit card and persuaded her that I wasn’t playing a joke on her and so she sold me a ticket.  But as I turned to go, she said, “If you’re not dead, how come they are giving someone a prize named after you at the banquet?”

A research project I wish I had done

is to map ‘state feminism’ in Canada’s provinces and territories to show how organized women accessed government through women’s policy agencies (WPAs) over time and jurisdictions, and especially to explain why the WPA model succeeded in Quebec regardless of the party in power;  in most other provinces, organized women only succeeded when there was a leftist party in power.  When we realize that the six women premiers currently govern 85 percent of Canadians, all the attention paid to the federal level seems out of proportion, especially since the federal WPAs have been dismantled, while some of the provincial/territorial agencies continue to play powerful roles in producing ‘women friendly’ policies. This story is still to be uncovered and told.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

an arbitrator. I became a political scientist because in the 1960s, quotas strictly limited how many women law schools would admit, no matter how good their academic records.  (Quotas also excluded people of minority religions and races.)  So I went to graduate school instead and in the 1970’s became active in the movement to unionize academic staff and served as the national president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).  I later did grievance work and developed a small, part-time arbitration practice representing unionized Public Service professionals and doing sexual harassment cases.  So the path was open for me to become a professional union arbitrator. But also in the 1970s, I worked with a small group of feminist scholars to create the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, which became the intellectual home within which we could develop the first stage of feminist political science.  I assumed that once the project was finished, that I would return to arbitration work. But since the project remains unfinished, I remain at its service, when I am not gardening or playing chess with my oldest grandson.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

the transition from a federation to a system of multi-level governance in which municipal and international levels form part of the framework for decision-making.

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

incorporating studies of ‘sex’, ‘gender’, ‘race’, ‘faith’, and other aspects of diversity into comparative politics frameworks instead of ghettoizing them as separate issues or chapters. This involves conceptualizing spatial and non-spatial types of diversity.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

to find subjects that really excite you and that you can envision will capture your enthusiasm for years, even decades.  Choose subjects that will make you feel good about being a political scientist and that contribute to our society’s collective self-understanding regarding politics and/or to the self-understanding of marginalized groups.  See your role as that of a professional and hold yourself to the highest possible standards of excellence.  Work with others, either in research networks or with people in the community.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - 06:35