That's History: First women lawyers around the world

Clara Brett Martin, called to the Ontario bar in 1897, was the first woman lawyer in Canada. But where does she stand among early women lawyers around the world?

She was at the centre of a trend, according to Mary Jane Mossman of Osgoode Hall Law School, who takes an international perspective in her new book, The First Women Lawyers. Other firsts according to the book:

United States: Arabella (Babb) Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. The western states of the U.S. accepted some of the very earliest women lawyers, often with little formal record-keeping, while bar associations and law schools of the eastern states kept women out longer.

Britain: No women formally became English barristers or solicitors until 1921-22. But Eliza Orme had all the credentials except the formal call and effectively practised law from 1875.
France: Jeanne Chauvin was fully qualified by 1890, but was prevented from taking the avocat's oath until 1900.

New Zealand: Ethel Benjamin was called to the bar in 1897 but was largely isolated by her colleagues despite her acknowledged skills.
Italy: Lydia Poet had the qualifications by 1883 and practised law from 1885. But Italian women were denied formal access to the profession until after the First World War.

India: Cornelia Sorabji, a Parsee, defended a murder charge in the Indian courts in 1896, but was denied full legal credentials on a variety of technicalities all her life.
Looking back from the early 21st century, it's striking how closely clustered these dates for the pioneer women lawyers now seem. The half century from 1870 to1920, less than one lifetime, saw women's first access to legal careers practically everywhere in the developed world. A tide was turning.

Yet almost everywhere, the successes of the first women lawyers proved to be a false dawn. The women lawyers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, frequently isolated and denied scope to practise, could not open the way for substantial numbers of women or spark a redefinition of gender roles in law. It was the late 20th century before the law became a profession with substantial numbers of women.

Mossman's investigations underline the hazards of personality, class, and jurisdiction that determined precise dates at which particular women broke through the barriers in each of these countries. She also demonstrates strikingly the ability of judges and other authorities to cherry-pick among precedents to suit their prejudices against women lawyers.

Mossman is cautious about simple interpretations of the emergence of the first women lawyers, preferring shifting "kaleidoscopes" of meaning. But she suggests two key themes.

First, women's access to the legal profession bore a tangled but undoubted relationship to the campaign for woman suffrage and citizenship. Some saw gaining the vote as a prelude to opening the professions. Some believed opening up the professions would lead to woman suffrage. Some favoured a strategy of demanding one but not the other. But the two movements clearly ran in tandem.

Second, the cause of women lawyers was not only about women. In the 19th century, the nature of professions was in flux. Professions had long been defined as the exclusive prerogative of gentlemen. Their slow reinvention into something determined by learned skills, objective testing, and certified credentials affected men as much as women - but the redefinition helped create small spaces that the first women lawyers claimed for themselves.

By the late 19th century, universities, judges, legislatures, and lawyers were all taking a hand in defining who should be lawyers - and all could become either pathways or barriers to the ambitions of women.
The mid-20th century now seems the truly anomalous time: a brief era in which women became accepted as lawyers in theory but were largely kept out in practice. Mary Jane Mossman explores the beginning of that era. We may still need a little more distance before we understand all the nuances of how it ended.

PS: Fifty years ago, the outgoing president of the Canadian Bar Association said in a speech printed in the Canadian Bar Review in 1956: "Some of you present today will undoubtedly attend the annual meeting of the CBA 50 years hence. What will you find? Certainly you will find the wives and sweethearts of the members of the association as charming and well dressed as those present at this meeting." (First woman president of the CBA? 1992.)

The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Professions by Mary Jane Mossman is published by Hart Publishing and distributed in Canada by Codasat, c/o University of Toronto Press. Christopher Moore is the author of McCarthy Tétrault (2005) and other works in legal history. His web site is www.christophermoore.ca

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