Esther Greenglass (b. 1940)

by Rachel Shour and Leeat Granek, York University

Esther Greenglass began her career as a researcher and educator in social psychology at the beginning of the second wave of the feminist movement in Canada.  Her unique ability to integrate her academic interests and political concerns testifies to her strength as a scientist, activist, and innovator.  Greenglass’ political involvement and psychological research in the 1970s served to advance both the field of psychology and the status of women in Canada.

The late 1960s were a challenging time for women in academia.  In universities, 34 percent of undergraduate degrees, 20 percent of master’s degrees and only 8 percent of doctoral degrees were earned by women (O’Neill, 2003, p.8).  Greenglass was part of that 8 percent; she completed her PhD in social psychology at the University of Toronto in 1967.  She accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at York University that same year where, as she observed, “you could count the number of women as University faculty members on one hand” (Greenglass, 2005, p. 2).

In 1971, Greenglass was appointed by the Liberal Party of Canada as a member of a three-woman Task Force to assess Canadians’ reactions to the recently released Royal Commission Report on the Status of Women (“Liberals study status report,” 1971).   The Royal Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1967 to “inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada and to recommend steps that might be taken by the federal government at the time to ensure equal opportunities for women.in all aspects of Canadian society” (The Royal Commission mandate, excerpted in O’Neill, 2003, p. 2). Gathering information from ordinary citizens, the Commission addressed a vast array of topics including women’s status in the areas of education, poverty, citizenship, taxation, public and family life and the Criminal Code.  The task force to which Greenglass was assigned was charged with traveling across Canada to hold public and private meetings where they would listen to views on the Royal Commission’s report and to determine which of the many recommendations included in the report were most important to Canadians and thus should be implemented.  The report was submitted to the Federal Government’s Cabinet (headed by Pierre Trudeau at that time) for consideration.

With her appointment to the Task Force, Greenglass moved beyond the academic community and into the public and political arena while retaining her university position and continuing to teach and conduct research.  The Commission report brought feminist issues to the forefront of public attention.  Newspaper articles exploring the issues raised by the Commission frequently quoted Greenglass’ feminist views:  Greenglass “question[ed] the man as being automatically the head of a family” (Haddrick, 1971) [a position considered quite audacious at that time] and she adamantly encouraged parents to “go against sex–role stereotyping” by ceasing to buy dolls for girls and guns for boys (“Equality attitudes,”1971), a view which evoked quite a bit of criticism.  She supported the development of government-subsidized daycare facilities and the liberalization of abortion laws.  Through her many newspaper interviews and public speaking engagements, Greenglass challenged her audiences to demand a climate in which women and men would have equal opportunities to make choices.  Thirty-five years later, it is almost inconceivable that such views were challenged publicly.

Greenglass’ position on the Liberal Task Force not only increased her public recognition, but also influenced her academic work within the university.  As she traveled across Canada, she was surprised to find that the issue Canadians debated most passionately was abortion.  She noticed that “many people who were either for or against abortion would talk about the psychological effects and yet they really didn’t have anything to go by” (as quoted in Westrup, 1977).  The lack of scientific evidence concerning the psychosocial effects of abortion was of particular concern to Greenglass, who was aware that “abortion is one of the few controversial subjects of modern life which has political, legal, religious, social and moral overtones” (as quoted in Worthington, 1977).  Greenglass decided to scientifically investigate the psychological effects of abortion in an attempt to differentiate among the many tangled myths and facts. 

Greenglass conducted a five-year study involving extensive interviews in which she compared the attitudes and psychological reactions of women who had had legal abortions with those of women who had never had an abortion.  It was the largest survey of its kind ever done in Canada, and the results were published in Greenglass’ first book After Abortion in 1976.  Here Greenglass dispelled the myth that abortions are necessarily psychologically harmful to women; her research demonstrated that the psychological outcome of an abortion depends on the circumstances surrounding the abortion, not only on the abortion itself (Greenglass, 1976).  Thus, for example, “if you’re breaking up with your boyfriend at the same time as the abortion, it’s very difficult to say the depression is due to one factor and not the other” (Greenglass, 2005, p. 5).  

In addition to dispelling myths, Greenglass’ research also challenged then-prevailing Canadian law.  According to the abortion law established in 1969, women could have an abortion only after their case was reviewed by a therapeutic abortion hospital committee composed of at least three doctors.  The doctors had to concur that the woman’s life or health would be endangered if she did not have the abortion.  Greenglass’ research showed that these laws resulted in situations that were psychologically harmful to women.  Moreover, delays resulting from waiting for therapeutic abortion committees to reach their decisions increased the risks of both physical and mental complications.

In the 1980s, Greenglass was one of the first psychologists in Canada to write a book on the psychology of gender, which she subsequently used in her courses on psychology of women and gender.  Her course was taught in York’s Division of Social Science and not the Department of Psychology because, according to her colleagues in psychology, “there was no need for any courses on women.”  This course and subsequent ones taught by feminist scholars at the time in other York University departments formed the foundation of York’s School of Women’s Studies, the largest in North America.

As an example of the ‘personal as political’, Greenglass’ personal decision to marry and have children also generated controversy in some feminist circles.  Despite her devotion to the promotion of equality for women, her personal decision to have a family left her with little support from some feminists.  Greenglass also faced judgments from others about her decision to continue to work full-time and entrust her children to the care of a nanny while at work.  

Greenglass is currently a full professor at York University after having served as chair of the psychology department in 2003-2004.  She is president-elect of the Division of Health Psychology of the International Association of Applied Psychology, the largest international body of psychologists.  Greenglass’ research and scholarly activities in the international arena present her and her students with new and diverse opportunities for exploring different approaches to psychological research and discourse.  Throughout her career, particularly in the 1970s, Greenglass chose the road less traveled, and her example has made all the difference for subsequent feminist psychologists and generations of women in Canada.

References           

Equality attitudes shaped in childhood women’s group told. (1971, November 3).  Toronto Daily Star, p. 84

Greenglass, E.R.  (1976). After abortion. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada.

Greenglass, E.R. (1982). A world of difference: gender roles in perspective.  Toronto: J. Wiley.

Greenglass, E.R. (2005, March, 1). Interview with Alexandra Rutherford

Haddrick, M. (1971, June 9). Liberation of women will mean less pressure on men.  The Mirror-Enterprise, p.13. 

Liberals study status report. (1971, May 14).  Toronto Daily Star, p. 69.

O'Neill, Brenda. "The Royal Commission on the Status of Women: Looking Back, Looking Forward," Keynote address at the International Women's Day Dinner sponsored by AESES and the Office of the President, University of Manitoba, March 5, 2003.

Westrup, H. (1977, March 24).  Excalibur interview with Esther Greenglass on abortion.  Excalibur, p. 9.

Worthington, H. (1971, October 6). Women topic of university studies.  Toronto Daily Star, p. 80.

Worthington, H. (1977, February 25).  Abortion laws make women suffer- study. The Toronto Star, p. E1.