O'Brien, Mary

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O'Brien, Mary

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  • O'Brien, Mary Mamie

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Mary O'Brien was a renowned philosopher, feminist scholar and Professor in the Department of Sociology in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Born in Walmer, Kent, England on 8 July 1926, along with her brother Jimmy, Mary was raised by her aunts in Glasgow, Scotland. Upon completion of her secondary school studies, she trained and then began a career as a nurse and midwife, which would last for nearly twenty-seven years. She moved to Montreal in 1956, where she continued to work as a nurse and midwife in various capacities as a senior administrator and educator specializing in rehabilitation and gerontological care. Always a supporter of the front-line nurse, often against hospital administrators, she resigned as Director of Nursing at the Grace Dart Hospital in Montreal, to protest against the lower wages of female nurses' aides for work that was similar to that of male orderlies. In the late 1960's, she decided to go back to school, first taking courses at Sir George Williams University (Concordia University) in Montreal, and later enrolling at Atkinson College, York University. She obtained her B.A. (Sociology) in 1970, her M.A. (Political Science) in 1972, and her Ph.D. (Political Science) in 1976, all from York University. During her doctoral studies, O'Brien was a part-time lecturer in the Department of Political Science at York University. Upon completion of her Ph.D., she became a Professor in the Department of Sociology in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Her Ph.D. thesis served as the basis of her first book, The Politics of Reproduction. The book was groundbreaking in its challenge of the entire Western philosophic tradition and her introduction of reproduction and women's experience as important fundamental theoretical concepts. This book was subsequently translated into French and Greek and it is still being read and taught by scholars around the world. Throughout the 1980's, O'Brien published extensively in journals and edited volumes. In 1989, her book Reproducing the World:
Essays in Feminist Theory was published, featuring a compilation of O'Brien's essays and addresses about feminist theory. She was also involved with the journal Resources for Feminist Research / Documentation de la Recherche FĂ©ministe, serving on its Editorial Board from 1979-1982 and its Advisory Board from 1986-1989. Likewise, she supervised over two dozen M.A., Ed.D., and Ph.D. graduate students, serving as a mentor to the next generation of feminist scholars. In addition, O'Brien was a highly sought after speaker and gave addresses and lectures throughout North America and the United Kingdom.

Besides her academic duties, O'Brien was highly involved in the feminist movement in Canada and was one of the founders of the Feminist Party of Canada in 1979. She also was active with the Toronto group, Women Against Violence Against Women.

Mary O'Brien retired from OISE in 1987. She passed away on 17 October 1998 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease.


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  • "Remembering Mary O'Brien," Canadian Woman Studies 18 (4) (Winter 1999).
  • McNaughton, Cath and Frieda Forman. ''Lives Lived: Mary O'Brien," Globe and Mail, 13 November 1998.

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