Feminist pioneer Glenda Simms dead at 82

Glenda Simms, the pioneering feminist and academic whose advocacy and activism led to real change for women in both Canada and her native Jamaica, has passed away.

The oldest of nine children, Simms grew up in the rural town of Malvern in the parish of St. Elizabeth, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains in southwest Jamaica.

After graduating from teacher training college, she emigrated to Canada in 1966. The following year, her husband and three children joined her.

Simms’ first teaching job in Canada was in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., where she was the first black person many of her students had met. Although she initially knew little about their native culture, Simms found that she could empathize with their geographic isolation and economic conditions.

She soon completed a master’s degree from the University of Alberta, followed by a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Lethbridge.

Led Advisory Board

In 1990, Simms became the first black president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, where she quickly gained a reputation as a fierce and outspoken advocate for gender equality.

“I realized she was a person who not only spoke it, but did it. She lived what she spoke. She was a grassroots, trenchant advocate,” said Elcho Stewart, founder of the Network of Black Business & Professional women, whom Simms consider a mentor. (The two also happen to share a grandchild.)

She was ahead of her time for a Canadian black woman.– Elcho Stewart

“She was a very strong speaker. She had an amazing ability to grab the attention of the audience,” recalls Merle Walters, who was Simms’ speechwriter during her time at the helm of the advisory board.

“At one point, feminism was seen as a white, middle-class thing,” Walters said. “She thought it had to be this way” [a wider] circle.”

‘Hurricane Glenda’

It was Walters’ husband, Ewart Walters, a longtime editor-publisher of the black community newspaper The Spectrum, who coined the moniker “Hurricane Glenda” for Simms’ seemingly boundless dynamism.

Although an academic, Simms often used plain language to get her point across. “Feminism is when you can differentiate between yourself and a doormat,” she once said.

“She was ahead of her time for a Canadian black woman,” says Stewart, comparing her boyfriend to American pioneers like Maya Angelou and bell hooks. “Glenda was at the forefront of that movement in Canada,” Stewart said.

In 1996, Simms returned to Jamaica to head that country’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs.

According to Stewart, there was a lot of work to be done.

“She had to shake that mango tree, so to speak, and she definitely went to Jamaica and did that.”

In Jamaica, Simms helped remove legal and systemic barriers to gender equality and launched several initiatives to eradicate gender-based violence.

“Glenda had the audacity to point out those things and get the government to take a closer look at some of its legislation,” Stewart said.

Kept her common touch

Simms later became a senior advisor on women’s issues to former Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, but never abandoned her grassroots activism. In the community where she was born and raised, she launched a training program to help women there become economically self-sufficient.

“So she spoke empowerment, and lived empowerment, and demonstrated women’s empowerment,” Stewart said.

Simms has led or served on numerous national and international committees and commissions, and has been recognized with numerous awards and honorary degrees, but according to those who knew her best, she never lost her ability to connect with ordinary people.

“She [could] age and relate to different levels, as well as different levels of education. It didn’t matter,” recalls Walters, who said she will miss her friend’s strength, humility and brilliance.

“It was just really something to be around someone as brilliant as Glenda.”

Simms died at her home in Ottawa on New Year’s Eve after an illness. She was 82.

For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from anti-black racism to success stories within the black community – visit Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. Read more stories here.


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