First woman lawyer trumps misogynists

Clara Brett Martin, trumped the misogyny of Toronto’s legal profession to become the first woman lawyer in the British Empire


Among the pantheon of leaders who crashed the doors and shattered the glass ceiling that held women back from the professions and business, few have done as much crashing and shattering as Clara Brett Martin (1874-1923) of Toronto. A member of a prominent Anglican-Irish family, Martin was an iconoclast even as a teenager. At a time when it was almost unheard for women to enroll in university science or technical programs, Martin won a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics from Toronto’s Trinity College, at age 16. Three years later, she petitioned the Law Society of Upper Canada for permission to become a student lawyer. The big wigs ruled that the law did not permit women lawyers. With the support of such people as Lady Aberdeen and Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat,   that was overturned by a new law passed by the Ontario legislature on April 13.  Martin became a student lawyer. Despite the continuing misogyny of Toronto lawyers, in 1897, she became the first woman lawyer in the globe-spanning British Empire. She was the trail blazer for probably more than a million women lawyers in more than a score of countries.

Martin’s first court case as a student lawyer is told by columnist Faith Fenton in The Empire, Toronto, September 22, 1894.

Miss Clara Brett Martin won her first case one day this week down in that musty old room assigned to the Division Court.

It may not mean much in the eyes of an old lawyer to win a case in the Division Court, but it means a good deal to the young student who is making her first public appearance and conducting her first examination. When the student happens to be the first woman lawyer in the country, it means even more.

The difficulties Miss Martin encountered and overcame before entering upon her law course are fresh in the minds of Toronto citizens. The opposition she met with from high legal lights, who were determined that the law school of Ontario should not be thrown open to women—not because it was wrong, or even especially unfitting, but simply because it never had been, and, therefore, never should be—all this we remember too well.

But having won what was really her first case—and probably she will never have so brilliant an array of legal talent against her again—Miss Martin entered as an articled clerk with Mulock, Miller, Crowther & Montgomery—and during the past year has been quietly at work in the office of this well-known firm, sharing with the male students in all the studies and delving assigned. In less than two years she will pass her examination as solicitor, by which time she hopes to have induced the law society to go the length of admitting her to the full-fledged honors of barrister.

To permit a woman to become a solicitor and prevent her from attaining the higher degree of barrister, simply because she is a woman, is too funny. Yet that is exactly the present state of affairs.

Oh, you men, you men! You are not half as generous or chivalrous as you would like us to think. You’re afraid, as the small boy would say—afraid that once the door is opened women will crowd in and minimize your profits and displace you altogether. Can’t you give her a chance, and work out the problem on equal terms?

She has no business to want to be a lawyer, you say. What right have you to decide what she shall or shall not want?

She should be in a home, you assert. Of course she should be, but if she hasn’t got a home, and you are not prepared to supply her with one, what then?

She should study medicine, or nursing; it’s more feminine.

Is it? I tell you, my friend of the law, there are things more hardening to a woman in either of these professions than may be found in all your musty law tomes. There are situations in either far more distressing to a women’s refined feeling than any that the practice of law knows. The doctors have much more reason in their objection than you have.

But the woman won the case, just as she won her first little case this week; just as she will probably win many more in the years to come.

Yet I do not think there is much reason to fear that the gates of the law courts will be broken down by women clamoring for admission. There has been no woman applicant, I believe, since Miss Martin’s entrance: the study is too dry, too costly, too slow in bringing return, for many women to be attracted by it. Only those who feel really drawn toward it by consciousness of mental fitness, are likely to follow law.

I was present in the Division Court this week, on the morning when Miss Martin won her case, having heard incidentally that she would appear. My knowledge of law courts is of the slimmest, and I was curious to see just how unwomanly her position would be.

It was not her first appearance: that occurred a week or two ago, when the case was adjourned that she might secure a needful witness. At that time I was told by a lawyer who attended the court that the young men present, the majority being themselves of the profession, indulged in open smiling and underbreath comment.

That was gentlemanly conduct toward a young girl whose sole offence was that she had to ask a quiet question or two in the conduct of a case for her firm—wasn’t it? Remember it was a man who told me, one who rather condoned than disapproved of the discourtesy.

On this morning I entered and sat quietly down below the railing among a few onlookers interested in one or two other of the cases. There were a few expectant witnesses, one or two women amongst them, a group of young lawyers or students about a table, a clerk within a railing and the judge in a dress suit up in his chair. There is nothing of official pomp or show about a Division Court.

A young lady, gowned in a pretty brown walking suit, came in quietly and took her seat up within the rail.

The judge swept several cases rapidly off the docket. Then came one of disputed rent. The young lady removed her hat, stepped down before the stand, and in the quietest of voices asked that two witnesses be called, to each of which she put one or two questions bringing out the fact that the defendant had admitted the debt which he now denied.


“Garnishee and cost,” said the judge, briefly, and the young lady put on her hat and walked out. But it was pretty to see the color spring into her cheeks when she heard the judge’s words and knew that she had won this, her first, case for her firm.

Judge Morson’s manner was the perfection of quiet, unmarked courtesy, that the young lawyers would do well to emulate.

It had been so brief a thing that I hardly realized its significant to this young girl, and through her to Canadian women in general, inasmuch as Ontario’s first young woman lawyer had won her first case.

Unfamiliar Canadian history


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