Over four years of fighting in the First World War, not only were there fewer students on Queen’s campus, there were fewer professors as well. With crisis, however, often comes opportunity and change, and it was during that time that Queen’s hired its first full-time female faculty member, Wilhelmina Gordon.
Born in Winnipeg in 1886 to a Presbyterian minister, Miss Gordon grew up learning the importance of education. Her father, Daniel Miner Gordon, served on the Board of Queen’s College and lectured at Manitoba College (later the University of Manitoba), so when Wilhelmina became of age, she was eager and encouraged to pursue higher education. She was studying at Dalhousie University when Chancellor Sandford Fleming contacted her father with a request. Principal George Grant was ready to retire, and Chancellor Fleming hoped that Daniel Gordon might be willing to take his place as Queen’s eighth principal.
When Minister Gordon became Principal Gordon in 1902, Miss Gordon moved to Kingston to complete her BA at Queen’s. After graduating from Queen’s in 1905, she attended Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and then went to the University of Chicago, and later to Somerville College, Oxford. When she completed her studies in 1909, she returned to Queen’s as a tutorial assistant. A few short years later, war broke out.
Initially, many thought the First World War would last only a few months, but as it dragged on to years, Principal Gordon had to deal with diminishing numbers of faculty members. In June 1916, he wrote to a colleague in Britain asking for faculty referrals, or at least some advice. He was told that all the best men were off fighting, and that he might consider a different approach and hire women to fill the roles.
Shortly thereafter, Queen’s hired its first full-time female faculty members: May Macdonnell in Classics and Wilhelmina Gordon in English. Miss Gordon excelled in the role and was promoted to assistant professor in 1925 and then associate professor in 1930. At this same time, she was heavily involved with the Alumnae Association as they raised funds to build Ban Righ Hall and worked with the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), a charitable education organization in Canada.
Wilhelmina Gordon was named National Education Secretary of the IODE from 1923 to 1937, and to this day, they maintain a scholarship in her name. Each year, it is awarded to the highest-ranking student in Queen’s English Department who is proceeding to graduate work.
After a long teaching career, during which she found the time to write a biography of her father, Daniel M. Gordon: His Life (see Books about Queen's). Miss Gordon retired in 1950. She died in 1968.