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A Woman of Influence: Evlyn Fenwick Farris

by Sylvie McClean

Biographer Sylvie McClean describes her subject’s papers as a small addition to the impressive archive of her husband, J. Wallace de Becque Farris, former attorney general of British
Columbia and a member of the Senate. Recovering women’s lives from the shadows of men has produced some amazing stories of pioneering activity and heroism. The biography of Evlyn Fenwick Farris, born in Nova Scotia in 1878, is not one of these.

Although Farris had a graduate degree from Acadia College and valued education for women, she believed the goal of education was to produce good wives, not to prepare women for the professions. A devout Baptist, she chose marriage as her mission. Yet she interpreted her role not as that of docile wife but as a powerful behind-the-scenes influence on her husband and on her society.

Evlyn founded the University Women’s Club of Vancouver, helped to elect the first Liberal government of British Columbia, and worked to establish and shape UBC. In her capacity as a member of the university senate and the board of governors, she fought strenuously for women’s rights to equal education, opposing any attempt to channel women into “separate but equal” programs. Yet she opposed the introduction of a nursing program, and when it became inevitable, she fought to include two years of arts education in the requirements. Also under her guidance, the University Women’s Club denied membership to those whose degrees included courses in home economics.

To support equal educational opportunities for women, but deny them the professional fulfillment to which such opportunities lead is clearly an untenable position. McClean, however, resists exploring the tensions created by such incompatible ideas, not least on Farris’s own personal life. While she mentions problems in the marriage – the husband’s failure to attend church, his drinking, his infidelity – she never fully addresses the frustrating situation of an intelligent, strong-minded woman whose only recourse is to work manipulatively through men who hold power.

The strength of this biography lies not in its portrayal of the central character, but in the wealth of historical detail about the province of British Columbia in the first decades of the 20th century.


Reviewer: Joan Givner

Publisher: Sono Nis Press


Price: $22.95

Page Count: 269 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55039-074-0

Released: May

Issue Date: 1997-8

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs