Monday, July 24, 2006

  • Royal Society of Canada elects 3 UW profs
  • Newspapers reveal 18th century cross-dressers
  • Editor:
  • Chris Redmond
  • Communications and Public Affairs

When and where

The UW Stage Band presents Summer Jazz Concert today at 5:30 p.m. in the Village One Lounge, directed by Michael Wood. Admission is free.

Save the Fed Bus hearing, today and Tuesday, July 25 at 10 a.m. For more details call 519-888-4042 or email

The IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Student Group at UW hosts the third instalment of a distinguished lecture series on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. Topic: "Wide Field-of-View Scanning Laser Imaging System for Tissue: Discovery, Patenting, Prototyping and Commercialization," with Ted Dixon, CEO, Biomedical Photometrics Inc. and UW professor emeritus of physics. Location: J.R Coutts Engineering lecture Hall, room 302.

To find more listings, please visit the UW events website.


Royal Society of Canada elects 3 UW profs

The Royal Society of Canada has elected 82 new fellows from across the country, including three faculty members from UW.

Li Ming, professor of computer science; Robert Myers, professor of physics and a member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics; and Mary Thompson, professor of statistics and actuarial science, are among those on the distinguished list for this year. All three were elected to the society's academy of science, mathematical and physical sciences division.

Election to the RSC is the highest honour that can be attained by scholars, artists and scientists in the country.

"The society is proud to celebrate the intellectual achievements of the new fellows," said Patricia Demers, president of the society. "Canadians have directly benefited from the outstanding achievements of these individuals. The new fellows of RSC are among those who, today, build the world we will live in tomorrow."

This year's new fellows will be inducted to the RSC in a ceremony to take place Nov. 19 in Ottawa.

Ming, a leading expert on Kolmogorov complexity, has been instrumental in discovering a new method for proving lower bounds and analyzing average-case complexity of algorithms and to the solution of a number of long-standing major open questions in computer science.

"He is an influential international leader in the development of bioinformatics algorithms and software who, along with his co-authors, has produced theorems, algorithms and proofs that are included in major computational biology books and software packages used widely," a citation says.

Myers is an outstanding theoretical physicist whose research has made him Canada's most renowned string theorist and places him among the top string theorists around the world.

"His highly cited groundbreaking contributions include pioneering research on gravity in higher dimensions, black holes, discovery of the 'Myers effect' in M-theory and work showing that cosmic superstrings may leave an observable imprint in the sky," a citation says.

Thompson's research spans a broad range of areas in statistical science, including pure and applied probability, mathematical statistics, the theory of sample surveys and several areas of application.

"Her seminal work on optimality and the foundations of inference for finite populations, optimal estimating functions and inference for stochastic processes has had a major impact and has been combined with important applied contributions in other disciplines," a citation says.

Since its founding in 1882, RSC has been regarded as a force for the enrichment, interpretation and strengthening of Canada's intellectual heritage. Unlike most scholarly and scientific societies, the society encompasses a broad range of disciplines in the natural and applied sciences, medicine, social sciences and humanities.


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Newspapers reveal 18th century cross-dressers

Adapted from the Arts Research Update newsletter

Fraser Easton of UW's English language and literature department says the focus of his current research is "a vital but largely forgotten working-class tradition" – women dressing as men 250 years ago in order to earn a living.

Faced with either destitution or prostitution, he says, many poor women of the 18th century invented a third option: dressing up in breeches and working as a man. These "passing-women workers" – and their cultural representation and reception – make "a fascinating story that hasn't been told," says Easton, "one that has persisting relevance to our own time."

Drawing critically on some elements of the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies, Easton not only examines individual texts (in this case, newspaper reports) in relation to the economic, social, and rhetorical codes of the time, but also assesses their representativeness through a systematic study of year after year of 18th century publications.

This critical analysis of individual texts, in turn, enables him to go back and reinterpret the codes themselves, teasing out some of the subtle rules of the 18th-century social order and sometimes challenging modern preconceptions of that world.

For example, scholarship in early modern gender studies has tended to focus on flamboyant stories drawn from the leisure classes, with their more playful and theatrical brand of gender-bending. "This has sometimes led to a distorted picture of the period, where sexual disguise was in fact more typically adopted for less dramatic and more pragmatic purposes," he says.

"One of the most common uses of female sexual disguise in 18th-century Britain was for occupational purposes: plebeian women routinely disguised themselves as men in order to work as labourers, servants, lower artisans and in laborious trades," he continues in an article published in the history journal Past & Present.

"Although this work-related dimension of female cross-dressing has sometimes been noted, its extent and significance for the study of early modern workers has not been fully appreciated or explored."

One text studied by Easton is an article from a 1753 daily newspaper recounting the story of a young woman who solves her unemployment problem by seeking work as a man. The report goes on to mention that she "lived there upwards of two Months before she was discover'd, though she lay all the Time with the other Waiter."

It's an intriguing story, and Easton points out the writer's tone of near admiration at the success of the woman's ruse. Also implicit, he notes, is an acceptance that cross-dressing is a reasonable, even appropriate, way for a poor woman to overcome the obstacles to female employment.

Rather than being considered a subversive practice, Easton argues, work-related cross-dressing for women was accepted and sometimes even celebrated as a feat of ingenuity and industriousness. It was only when sexual disguise crossed over into sexual impersonation (as when passing-women workers became also "counterfeit bridegrooms") that 18th-century society became more uneasy and censorious.

Easton has set out to be as systematic as possible, rather than making broad generalizations on the basis of only a few individual texts. Funded by a Social Sciences Humanities Research Council grant, and with graduate research assistance, Easton has engaged in a comprehensive search of references to passing-women workers in three key periodicals of the 18th century: The Annual Register, The Gentleman's Magazine and The Daily Advertiser.

With this archival stage of the research nearly complete, he is making important discoveries. Besides demonstrating that cross-dressing was a far more widespread and socially accepted phenomenon than had previously been realized, he has also determined that newspaper reports, like ballads and other forms of street literature, were one of the vectors by which labouring-class people, as well as their "betters," communicated about such customs.

As well, he has discovered a disjunction between the genres of reportage found in the daily newspapers and what can be found in the annual news digests. Whereas the dailies include a wide diversity of articles about cross-dressing women — including the more mundane stories — the annuals tend to limit their focus to the most sensational stories.

This might explain, says Easton, some of the inaccurate conclusions reached by previous researchers. Finally, in contrast to the prevailing assumption, the archives show that this practice of working-class cross-dressing did not die off at the end of the century but continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.

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