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 died.
The eldest of nine children, Simms grew up in the rural town of Malvern in St. Elizabeth parish, high in the Santa Cruz mountains of southwestern Jamaica.
After graduating from teachers’ college, she immigrated to Canada in 1966. Her husband and three children joined her the following year.
Simms’s first teaching job in Canada was in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., where she was the first Black person many of her students had met. Though she initially knew little of their Indigenous culture, Simms found she could relate to their geographic isolation and economic circumstances.
She soon completed a master’s degree at the University of Alberta, followed by a PhD in educational psychology at the University of Lethbridge.
In 1990, Simms became the first Black president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, where she quickly earned a reputation as a fierce and outspoken advocate for gender equality.
“I realized she was an individual who didn’t just speak it, but did it. She lived what she spoke. She was a grassroots, in-the-trenches advocate,” said Elcho Stewart, founder of the Network of Black Business & Professional Women, who considers Simms a mentor.
“She was a very strong speaker. She had an amazing ability to capture an audience’s attention,” recalled Merle Walters, who was Simms’s speechwriter during her time at the helm of the advisory council.
“At one point, the business of feminism was seen as a white, middle-class thing,” Walters said. “She thought that it should be [a wider] circle.”
Though 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 famously said.
“She was ahead of her time for a Canadian Black woman,” said Stewart, who compares her friend to such American trailblazers as 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 up that country’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs.
In Jamaica, Simms helped root out legal and systemic roadblocks to gender equality, and launched several initiatives aimed at eliminating gender-based violence.
“Glenda had the gumption to point those things out, and to get the government to take a closer look at some of its legislation,” said Stewart.
Simms later became a senior adviser 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.
Simms led or participated in numerous national and international commissions and committees, and was lauded 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] transcend age and relate at different levels, and also at different education levels. It didn’t matter,” recalled Walters, who said she’ll miss her friend’s strength, humility and brilliance.
“It was just really something to be around somebody quite as brilliant as Glenda.”
Simms died at her home in Ottawa on New Year’s Eve following an illness. She was 82.