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FOCUS: A literary trailblazer (Oct. 2020)

November 2nd, 2020 · 1 Comment

Jay Macpherson paved way for next generation of female professors

A young Jean Jay Macpherson during her teaching years. COURTESY VICTORIA UNIVERSITY

Correction: On page 11 of the August 2020 issue of the Annex Gleaner, in the annual Grading our Greenspace section, Jay Macpherson was misidentified as “he”. This error was brought to our attention by Alexandra F. Johnston, professor emerita, Department of English, Victoria College, University of Toronto. The Gleaner regrets the error.

By Mary An

Jay Macpherson Green at 255 Avenue Rd. was named after Jean “Jay” Macpherson in 2013, one year after her death. She was a much-loved English professor to writers including Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and Alexandra Johnston. Her legacy, however, extends beyond a park and inspiring a handful of successful Canadian writers. 

Born in London, England, in 1931, Macpherson didn’t like being called by her first name, so she chose to go by “Jay.” At nine years old, she was brought to Newfoundland as a war guest, and then moved to Ottawa where she studied at Carleton University. She continued her studies at McGill University before finally landing at the University of Toronto (U of T). At Victoria College she studied under the renowned literary critic Northrop Frye, and began publishing her own contemporary poetry in 1949. She won many prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, the Levinson Prize by Poetry magazine, and the University of Western Ontario President’s Medal for The Boatman. She even established her own small press: Emblem Books, where she published distinguished writers including Dorothy Livesay, Alden Nowlan, Al Purdy, and others. 

All of these achievements are impressive enough, before even considering what she accomplished in her career. Macpherson did what was nearly impossible for a woman in 1957 – she became one of five female professors in the English department at U of T. 

Macpherson was considered to be an “excellent teacher,” and an outstanding friend by both Margaret Atwood and Alexandra Johnston. 

In her fourth year as an undergraduate, Johnston lived in the same building on campus with Macpherson when, as the story goes, she heard a knock on her door at 10 p.m. 

“It was Jay, in her dressing gown with her braid down her back, handing me back a marked essay,” she said in an interview with the Annex Gleaner. “It’s not the sort of thing professors do, going out of their way like that.”

Johnston is now a retired Professor of English at Victoria College, and between 1981 and 1991, acted as the first female principal of the college. Johnston says that as a teacher,  Macpherson took on the role of mentor and by doing so, helped pave the way for a new generation of female academics.

“She was the link between the senior generation who had been teaching since the 1940s and the new people who came on in the 1960s,” Johnston said, adding that Macpherson also proved herself to be someone with an enormous heart. “Even during the last years of her life, she looked after another elderly colleague, who was in a wheelchair, and did everything for him,” Johnston said. “She exhausted herself doing it, but none of us could compel her to stop.”

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