Thomasine Elder Irwin


 CFUW President 1988-1990

Whether we are ‘small a’ activists or sign waivers, whether we have arrived at this state early or late, it is important that we be concerned, that we educate ourselves as thoroughly as possible regarding our concerns, and then take whatever action is appropriate to address these concerns.”

Tammy was born in 1938 to Winnifred Agnes (Law) Elder and C. Gerald Elder at Tillsonburg, Ontario. Her father’s work with Imperial Oil resulted in frequent moves for Tammy who completed elementary school in Sarnia and then moved to Winnipeg when her father was transferred. After completing high school at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) she stayed there to study first year science. Following her father’s transfer and the family relocation to the company town of Ioco, BC, she transferred to the Arts Faculty at the University of British Columbia and graduated in 1958 with a BA, majoring in English and psychology. She then returned to Winnipeg.

Seeking new friendships, Tammy joined UWC Winnipeg in 1958, sponsored by two of her mother’s friends (imagine that requirement!). At that time, Eileen Clark (CFUW President 1979-1982) was club Membership Secretary. Tammy joined the active young graduates group and also served on the Finance Committee.

After graduation, Tammy worked for a year in the Surgery Research Department of the University of Manitoba’s Medical College where part of her duties involved putting plaster casts on white rats – not really related to her BA. Later she was hired by the Government of Manitoba as a welfare worker, a job that took her into rural areas of the province and into many difficult home situations. During this time, she met, and in 1960 married, Clare Irwin, a young lawyer working for Canadian National Railways. Daughter Laura was born a year later.

In 1962, when Clare was relocated to Vancouver, Tammy transferred her membership to UWC Vancouver, just at the time that the club was in discussions with the city regarding the purchase of Hycroft, the 1912 estate of Colonel McRae. It was an exciting time for the club. Tammy was invited to sit on the first House Committee charged with transforming the mansion from a long-vacant, weather-damaged shell into a re-creation of its former beauty, all on a limited budget. Tammy again became active in the recent graduates group. Her daughter Kathleen was born in 1964 and son George in 1967 during Tammy’s term as club Membership Secretary when the club welcomed its 1000th member. At that time the CFUW National Office kept track of all members. Computers would have been helpful, as Tammy remembers hand-printing multiple copies of the names, addresses, degrees, and other relevant information of each new member – “a job,” she says, “best done at the ironing board.”

In the summer of 1968, when Clare was transferred to Edmonton, Tammy began her long association with CFUW Edmonton, one of the founding clubs of CFUW, with a long history of community advocacy as well as educational support through scholarships and bursaries. In the early 1970s, members established an Academic Awards Fund, which was granted charitable status. All the interviewing, judging, and administration for the bursaries and scholarships was done by club members.

Tammy was Club President from 1972 to 1974, Provincial Director for Alberta from 1979 to 1982, and Vice-President West from 1985 to 1988. She was the last CFUW Vice-President West and the first National President who did not live in the city where the National Office was located. Although CFUW President Mary Bollert had served for two years (1926-1928) to facilitate the scheduling of Triennials of both CFUW and IFUW, Tammy was the first National President to start the practice of Presidents’ serving Biennial terms. Tammy had proposed the idea of going to a two-year term when Linda Souter (CFUW President 1985-1988), who lived in Ottawa, was setting up the National Office in Ottawa. Tammy strongly believed that it would be easier to attract women to the position if they faced a two-year term. Furthermore, when the office had moved around the country every three years to the home city of the President, the process of moving and hiring new staff could take much of the first year. There were several arguments against the Biennium, with financial concerns and fitting the term into IFUW’s Triennium being the most prominent. President-Elect Tammy did not know until the vote was taken at the 1988 Ottawa AGM whether she would be serving a two-year or a three-year term.

During her presidency, Linda Souter had asked clubs to send in their main issues of concern so that the first Biennial theme could incorporate them into the agenda. Environment and health were identified as the two major issues. While both of these do have a great impact on women and girls, women’s issues, per se, were not at the forefront of CFUW’s focus at that time. The theme chosen for the 1988-1990 Biennium “Our Health, Our Planet, Our Future” was a happy coincidence for Tammy as she had been involved in the environment group of CFUW Edmonton for several years.

Tammy’s inaugural address to the Federation focused on the need for improved communication – both within CFUW and between CFUW and governments, other institutions, and organizations. CFUW had 12 000 individual members in 1988 and considerable time was spent on membership strategies. Brochures and a new membership guide were developed and distributed to clubs. In her 1990 Annual President’s Report Tammy announced the motto “Knowledge is Growth. Come Grow with Us.” was devised, along with the Mission Statement that CFUW, a member of IFUW, was an organization of University graduates that in a spirit of cooperation and friendship is “committed to the pursuit of knowledge, the promotion of education, the improvement of the status of women and human rights and active participation in public affairs” (Irwin).

Tammy, the first President operating from outside the National Office, kept in regular touch with Executive Director, Elizabeth Cureton, using the fairly new and relatively inexpensive fax technology. She usually coordinated trips to the National Office with visits to individual clubs and Provincial Council meetings. She made only one trip to each Council during the Biennium, as she believed it was important for the Vice-Presidents to take the lead roles at least once. The Provincial Directors, later RDs, were at that time Board members. Because a Board of 28 was an unwieldy and expensive number for meetings other than at the AGMs, Tammy met with her Executive Committee, consisting of the Vice-Presidents, Finance Chair, and Secretary twice during the year, and consulted this Executive on a regular basis.

The Conservative Government, under Prime Minister Mulroney, was in power at the time and the Minister for the Status of Women, Barbara McDougall, was particularly helpful with the presentation of CFUW policy to government by distributing various sections of CFUW policy briefs to the appropriate cabinet ministers who then responded to these concerns. These responses were sent back to the CFUW office and Minister McDougall arranged for CFUW representatives to meet with the pertinent cabinet ministers. A CFUW team then gathered in Ottawa, studied the responses and planned the strategy for the meetings with the ministers. The planned meeting with then Health Minister Perrin Beatty, for example, was extended to an hour, possibly due to the fact that his wife was a CFUW member. The final report of all government meetings was sent to the clubs.

The tragedy of the École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, 1989, occurred during Tammy’s presidency. This assault on the freedom of education for women could not be ignored. Louise McArthur initiated the establishment of CFUW’s Polytechnique Memorial Fellowship honoring the young women killed that day. Clubs across Canada contribute annually to this Fellowship fund which now awards two Fellowships, one at the Masters and one at the Doctoral level. These awards have great significance for CFUW members.

In 1990, it was expected that, if possible, a retiring President would become the Coordinator for International Relations, but, as the next President served for two terms, Tammy continued as CIR from 1990 to 1994. At that time CFUW did not have special consultative status with the United Nations nor attend the UN Status of Women meetings in New York, so the CIR position primarily involved communication with individual members and other national federations and associations. During this time, Tammy represented CFUW as a mentor at the Global Conference on Women and the Environment in Miami, Florida.

In 1995, Tammy chaired the IFUW Resolutions Committee for the upcoming Triennial meeting in Yokohama, Japan. She put in place an adapted consultation model, which proved less confrontational for delegates, many of whom were dealing with language challenges. This reduced considerably the debate time during the conference business sessions that 21 resolutions were debated in one-and-a-half-hours at that IFUW Triennial. Tammy served as Chair for two terms, until the end of the Ottawa IFUW Triennial in 2001.

While CFUW has played a large role in Tammy’s life, she has been involved in many other community volunteer organizations. She has spent several years as a literacy tutor and in 2015-2016 was working with a small ESL class and helping a refugee from Uganda with homework and language. She and Clare have a long-term involvement in social justice issues in their United Church continuing to review the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to plan ways to help in the implementation process.

Involvement in the lives of their family, which includes six grandchildren, plays a large part in their lives. When they have free time they may be found travelling.

Works Cited

Irwin, Thomasine (Tammy). Primary Writer. TS.

—. Irwin, Thomasine. “Report of the President”. Annual Reports 1990 AGM. Print.

Works Consulted

Irwin, Thomasine “CFUW and the Making of a ‘Small a’ Activist.” Journal 25.2 (1988): 1+. Print.

—. “Continuing Challenge and Opportunity.” Journal 24.12 (1988): 1+. Print.

—. “Use of Name Policy.“ Journal 25.1 (1988): 1+. Print.