Clara Brett Martin: Hero or Villain?

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

"This application to the Law Society of Upper Canada is refused. The governing statute regulating this body, not having been drafted under the advanced views of the day and specifically referring to the admission of persons, does not permit the interpretation of 'persons' to include women. This was the spirit of the reply to Clara Brett Martin's application to study law in 1891.

Despite the rejection, Martin persisted. Optimistically, or perhaps naively, she appealed to what she considered the "broad spirit of liberality and fairness" characteristic of the legal profession. With the support of such influential people as Dr. Emily Stowe and Sir Oliver Mowat, Martin's appeal led to the passage of a provincial act allowing women to become solicitors. She became a law student in 1893 and placed first in the examinations to become a solicitor.

With the help of Lady Aberdeen and the continued assistance of Mowat, Martin's second appeal led to legislation to admit women as barristers. Martin applied to the bar but was rejected again. The Law Society finally yielded to pressure brought by wealthy clients and on February 2, 1897, Martin became the first woman lawyer in the British Empire. She eventually earned a Bachelor of Civil Law and LLB degrees and established a successful practice in Toronto.

Clara Brett Martin
Canada's first woman lawyer (courtesy The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives).

Looking back at Martin's treatment by a patriarchal regime, it is abhorrent today that a woman could be denied personhood and thereby be barred from admittance to an organization for which she was well-qualified. However, we can place the events in their historical context, and not feel threatened by them.

At the turn of the 20th century, women could appear in court as litigants, witnesses or victims, but not as members of the court. In fact, allowing women access to higher education was still contentious. After all, "the conferring of degrees on women would encourage them to enter the professions and public life," exposure that surely would not be supported by those "who appreciate the delicate grace and beauty of woman's character." Besides, women were sure to influence judges and juries with their feminine wiles.

Martin was not a leader of the women's movement, but she worked diligently to promote opportunities for women. She hired women law students, worked to establish a Women's Court, and served for ten years on the Toronto Board of Education, recognizing that education is the key to empowerment. Her achievements were not examined until the early 1980s, when academia began to recognize women's accomplishments.

Martin reached a zenith in September 1989 when Ontario's Attorney-General announced that the department's new office would be named for her. The official opening of the Clara Brett Martin Building included a dramatic representation of her struggle that brought people to tears. Martin was elevated to the status of heroine.

In July 1990, less than a year later, Martin was shoved off her pedestal when a University of Western Ontario law professor published a letter Martin wrote in March 1915 to a lawyer in the Attorney-General's office. The letter complained that property titles were clouded by the registration of fake agreements of sale. Each instance the professor cited was attributed by Martin to a "Jew." She also asked that "the Registry Act be amended to prevent this scandalous work of foreigners."

Such slurs are abhorrent today, but in their historical context may not have been. Regardless, the damage was done. Individuals called for the removal of her name from the building, while others called for it to remain, given the number of buildings named for anti-Semitic men. Her name remained until the defeat of the Liberal government later that year. The next Attorney-General removed it, but it remains in silhouette, as shadowy as the memory of Martin's accomplishments became.

The choice remains: honour Martin for her accomplishments in the face of huge obstacles, or vilify her for attitudes that have become pejorative over time. To do either exclusively denies the complexity of human history.