New media visionary Liss Jeffrey was a bit scary - but I like that in a woman. And, anyway, compliant, eager-to-please females don't get nearly as much done as the difficult, challenging ones.
That was certainly the magic of the brashly magnetic Liss, a one-time TV producer turned McLuhan scholar and pioneer Web democrat.
We met in high school in 1968 when I was in grade 12 and she in 13. Georgia (Phillips) Stein, a genius English teacher at Forest Hill, had cooked up the idea of sending an all-female debating team to a competition among private boys' schools across Ontario.
Liss, Harriet Boyes and I were the only girls there. Two key things remain in my consciousness about that meet: thankfully, Liss and I were on the same side, and, yes, we won the whole damn thing.
When Liss went away to Harvard-Radcliffe the next year, she encouraged me to apply, and when I was accepted, vowed to keep an eye out for me. I remember arriving at my dorm room with my parents, my bags and my typewriter in tow. Liss was standing in the doorway of my room.
"Susan," she said. "I'm starting a women's collective, and I want you to be in it. First meeting is tomorrow."
Persistent and fiercely focused, she was not an easy person to say no to, whereas I was a wide-eyed freshman. I did arrive at that meeting, mildly intimidated by the other nine participants, each of them hand-picked by Liss, all of them at least a full year older than I.
But through that process I found my passion and I found myself.
Liss came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the idea that she'd start a new religion, but she wound up doing something more important. The much-mythologized Harvard community was not an easy place for young women in 1970. Radcliffe had its own admissions policy, but women went to classes with Harvard men and received a Harvard degree.
For every five undergrads, only one was female. When our ideas were not dismissed outright, we were perhaps encouraged by professors to "give us the female perspective." It was a big, powerful boys' club.
Liss Jeffrey, 1970
When a series of rapes occurred on campus, our collective organized to demand free self-defence classes - education for the real world, as we put it. By then, thanks to Liss's inspiration, we were not calling ourselves the Harvard-Radcliffe Women's Collective (yawn) but, rather, Radcliffe Women to Keep Mind and Body Together - a monicker that always drew a smile, even from our many antagonists in the administration, who didn't like our perpetual campaign for equal admissions for women.
As is often the case when you're making history, you don't really notice. But almost everybody on the campus at the time will admit that Harvard was never the same after that small group started meeting in a dormitory basement.
In Toronto, after graduation, Liss turned her activist mind to the media front. She was one of the early staffers at then-groundbreaking Citytv. Head honcho Moses Znaimer knew how to pick 'em. He famously worked his employees hard, and Liss, the original producer of The Shulman File, had just the right energy.
She went on to a career as a media scholar, developing a 10-year association as an adjunct professor with the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, then part of U of T's faculty of information studies, before founding the Global McLuhan Research Network. Until her death, she was an indefatigable promoter of Internet freedom and open-source technologies.
She fought hard all her life for justice, for creative thinking and, in the years before her death, against the cancer that eventually conquered her. When she was frustrated by lazy thinking, she'd shake that fist of hers and ask the heavens, "What's the point of a battle of wits when your opponent is unarmed."
She's arguing with the gods as we speak. I thank them for Liss.
Plans are in the works for the Dr. Liss Jeffrey Scholarship for Media Studies. Send contributions to the Morley Bedford Funeral Home.