Precedents, Patterns and Puzzles: Feminist Reflections on the First Women Lawyers
1. Feminist Insights about Early Women Lawyers: Methods and Theories
[F]eminist objectives emphasize understanding rather than controlling the material or information generated and conceptualize the interpretive task as one of opening rather than closure...[T]he problematic for feminists resides...in the fundamental concepts underlying the framing of questions...(, pp. 170–71)
Some women’s narratives can be read as counter-narratives, because they reveal that the narrators do not think, feel, or act as they are ‘supposed to...’ [Other narratives] unfold within the framework of an apparent acceptance of social norms and expectations but nevertheless describe strategies and activities that challenge those same norms...Still others may allow us new insights into the lives of women who apparently thrive within the established norms and parameters or even assertively contribute to the maintenance of prevailing systems of gender domination...(, p. 7)
2. Precedents and Patterns: Gender in History and Biography
2.1. Early Women Lawyers: Gender and History
History is a retelling of the human experience. To give meaning to that experience, we focus the beams of memory and research on certain events, people, and places, leaving others in the shadows. From time to time, influenced in part by what seems to be important in our own lives, we move the beams to illuminate unfairly obscured aspects of the human past.(, p. 1, emphasis added)
It is all very well to say that women’s sole sphere should be the home, but it shows most lamentable blindness to the economic conditions which one would think were potent. The plain fact...is that many women have to earn their living outside the home, if they are to have homes at all...
2.2. Early Women Lawyers: Gender and Biography
What is acceptable, what is possible, and what is imagined and attempted often differ. Women may be seen as eccentric rather than exceptional, and the world she is perceived to live in may be markedly different, especially in earlier times. Feminism here reveals not only issues about gender and culture but an area of men’s and women’s lives that is still treated in culturally determined ways.(, pp. 132, 149, emphasis added)
To count upon a girl being provided for by marriage, and to teach her nothing but the duties of a married woman, is about as foolish as it would be to count upon a boy becoming heir to a fortune and to teach him nothing but the duties of a landed gentleman.(, p. 158)
3. Puzzles in the Lives of Early Women Lawyers
In choosing a [biographical] subject, the relationship need not be those most commonly assigned—identification or affinity or sympathy. It can be a deep understanding of the pressures the time brought to bear on the subject. It can be deep engagement with the ‘puzzles’ that remain unsolved about the life...The great questions of biography are the essential questions about human experience in the world...They are the stuff of humankind’s puzzling out its relationship to the world, how individual desire and ambition are confounded or aided by social, historical forces and other human beings...(, p. 59, emphasis added)
3.1. Early Women Lawyers: Gender, History and Legal Professionalism
Individuals respond in different ways to differing historical situations, and a study of any particular life can help both to illuminate these situations as well as aid our understanding of the person being studied.(, p. 6)
You may discover that some replies indicate an apparent lack of discrimination; in many cases I have found that women are unwilling to admit discrimination, either because they are trying to conceal the fact from themselves or because they must play the role of ‘Uncle Tom’ and that their chances of promotion depend absolutely upon their conformity to and acceptance of the existing patterns.(, p. 46, emphasis added)
3.2. Early Women Lawyers: Gender, Biography and “Silences”
We all want stories...[We want to know about] alternatives, missed chances, roads not taken, accidents and hesitations, the whole ‘swarm of possibilities’ that hums around our every experience...Biographies are full of verifiable facts, but they are also full of things that aren’t there: absences, gaps, missing evidence, knowledge or information that has been passed from person to person, losing credibility or shifting shape along the way...(, pp. 1, 5)
Like the frontiers-women silent about their physical strength and courage, pioneer women professionals were silent about their ambitions and recounted their lives as though their successes just happened to them, rather like the soprano’s chance meeting with the tenor in the first act of an opera. So the woman professional, actually a new and potentially revolutionary social type, told her story as a philanthropic romance...What are we to make of such silences?(, pp. 15–16, emphasis added)
[Cornelia Sorabji] wrote her own excellent biography, India Calling. But because of its sensitivity, she suppressed half of the details. Her three-year exile starting in 1901 from India to England to scotch a love affair is concealed, and to preserve the concealment, her encounters at that time with such leading cultural figures as GF Watts, Bernard Shaw and the serpentine Mrs Patrick Campbell are deliberately mis-dated.
Of the personal side of the question I daren’t speak. You will understand what it means to me...And the fact that we all thought the matter fought & done with makes it the harder: Every day since the HC sent me what I thought its ultimatum in ’97, I’ve felt ‘Tis one day nearer’, & the cruel dashing of it all at first felt too dreadful to realize...Ah! ‘tis hard of fate. I have paid the penalty to the utmost farthing & shirked nothing...If all fails, I must give up the legal idea, & seek other work, but at present I feel as that would break my heart...(, emphasis added)
Asked if she is disappointed not to be a Supreme Court judge, she replied: ‘I have been at peace over unfulfilled ambitions for 20 years. Not appointing a woman judge has been discrimination. It was broken with the appointment of Mabel Van Camp. Again, as in most top jobs, a woman has to be much better than a man. This applies to women judges,’ she concluded.
4. Twenty-First Century Reflections on Early Women Lawyers
How are those who cross the threshold received? If they belong to a group different from the one already ”inside”, what are the terms of their incorporation? How do the new arrivals understand their relationship to the place they have entered? What are the terms of identity they establish?(, p. 179)
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1Others have focused on a related, but quite different question in a yearning to discover role models in the lives of early women lawyers. For example, Barbara Babcock’s assertion that stories of nineteenth-century women lawyers revealed “a self-conscious feminist in virtually every early woman lawyer” risks interpreting their lives from a modern perspective, and not only because the word “feminism” may not have entered the English language until almost the turn of the twentieth century: see (, p. 119). More recently, two assessments of Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, used current definitions of feminism to include her as a feminist judge, even though Wilson never so identified herself: see (, p. 211; , p. 33).
- 2Conaghan argued that “What becomes clear...is the need to resist conceptualizations of feminist legal engagement as either material or discursive, modern or postmodern, reform-based or theoretical. These are simply two sides of an intellectually contrived debate” (, p. 47).
- 3Clara Brett Martin was admitted to the bar in Ontario in February 1897, and Ethel Benjamin was admitted to the bar in New Zealand just a few months later (, pp. 82–83, 168–69).
- 4Indeed, the last American university to admit women to law programs, Washington and Lee University, did not do so until 1972—more than one hundred years after women first gained admission to state bars (, p. 39).
- 5Albisetti also noted that (after World War I), it was striking to observe “the relative simultaneity of the process in countries with widely differing economic, social, political, religious, and professional traditions” .
- 7However, as late as 1917, the bar in England remained resolutely opposed to the admission of women. At the bar’s general meeting that year, a motion to admit women was rejected, with members expressing the view that “The fact that women nurse and sew and wait at canteens is no indication of their capacity for the legal profession” (, pp. 157–58; , p. 277).
- 8According to Cott, the Civil War killed more Americans than any other war in which the US has been involved .
- 9Annie Macdonald Langstaff, Speech to the Insurance Underwriters’ Dinner, 1916, quoted in . Macdonald Langstaff was a single mother with one child, but in spite of ongoing efforts to gain admission to the bar in Québec, she remained the office manager of a Montreal law firm and never succeeded in practising law herself. She was admitted to the bar of Québec posthumously in 2006.
- 10Drachman also identified a letter from Belva Lockwood (a widow) in which Lockwood asserted that she took “every case, no matter how difficult, occurring in civil, criminal, equitable and probate law”, a comment that suggests a need to earn a living (, p. 58).
- 11American women obtained suffrage only after World War I.
- 12For example, Clara Brett Martin’s application for admission to the legal profession in Ontario occurred just a few years after Osgoode Hall established its first permanent lectures on law in 1889.
- 13For example, Wesley Pue and David Sugarman suggested a need to examine carefully the gender issues in the legal profession (, pp. 15–16).
- 14The posthumous admission to the bar occurred on the 65th anniversary of women gaining admission to the bar of Québec in 1941, and ninety-two years after Macdonald Langstaff had obtained her BCL degree from McGill University.
- 15For example, John Stuart Mill in Britain, Louis Frank in Europe, and Sam Jacobs in Québec, as well as many less well-known male lawyers and judges, provided critical support for women’s equality and their eligibility for admission to the bar (, pp. 280–81).
- 17The admission of women to university law programs, while denying them admission to the bar, clearly created a cadre of legally-trained women in Britain and some European countries, who could work in law offices as employees of male lawyers .
- 18As Cott argued, “the professional credo, that individual merit would be judged according to objective and verifiable standards, made a promise so potent to women professionals that they upheld the ideal even when they saw it travestied in practice.” There are numerous studies of the rise of professionalism: see [68,69,70,71,72].
- 19According to Ker Conway, the tragedies of the twentieth century resulted in replacing “the confident European imperialist narrative” with the “postmodern refusal to recognize a central point of view from which the world is to be seen” (, p. 11).
- 21Cornelia Sorabji had a close relationship with the Allahabad High Court Judge, Hugh Blair, as confirmed in Richard Sorabji’s biography of his aunt. As Richard Sorabji explained, this (unconsummated) affair resulted in her family’s decision to banish Cornelia to England in 1901 (, pp. 90–92). However, Cornelia Sorabji’s personal account of her time in England was vague about the timing of her visit to England: see India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji. London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1934.
- 22Wright had been admitted to the bar of Massachusetts.
- 23As Rosemary Auchmuty pointed out, the language of “discrimination” was more in use in the 1970s than it was in the 1940s; however, in the 1980s, some women lawyers (including Laura Legge and Rose Heilbron, noted in the text) were still using the language of “equality.” Justice Mabel Van Camp was the first woman lawyer in Ontario to be appointed to the province’s Supreme Court in 1971. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was released in 1970 and became a touchstone for social and legal reforms in women’s interests; for example, it recommended the appointment of women as judges.
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Mossman, M.J. Precedents, Patterns and Puzzles: Feminist Reflections on the First Women Lawyers. Laws 2016, 5, 39. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws5040039
Mossman MJ. Precedents, Patterns and Puzzles: Feminist Reflections on the First Women Lawyers. Laws. 2016; 5(4):39. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws5040039Chicago/Turabian Style
Mossman, Mary Jane. 2016. "Precedents, Patterns and Puzzles: Feminist Reflections on the First Women Lawyers" Laws 5, no. 4: 39. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws5040039