Clara Brett Martin was born, and spent her entire life in Toronto, Canada.
In 1890, she obtained a mathematics degree from Trinity College and began a teaching career. But when, in 1891, she made known to the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario) that she sought admission to the bar, an extraordinary sequence of events was put in motion.
First, the indignant male law society set up committees to debate the matter while the legal press spoke for far too many lawyers. The Canada Law Journal of 1896 wrote:
"We know of no public advantage to be gained by (women) being admitted to the Bar.... a woman seeking a profession where she is bound to meet much that would offend the natural modesty of her sex."
One prominent lawyer published an open letter in the local newspaper, the Globe:
"What effect ... will be produced on the dignity of the court by the appearance ... of a female barrister, availing herself in her appeal to the jury ... of the influence of her sex? How much control do they think a judge will be able to exercise over a female counsel?"
He concluded his diatribe by referring to "... natural limitations, duties and delicacies" of women stating that their admission to the practice of law would "bring shame and ridicule on courts of law".
Such was trailblazer Clara Ms Martin’s challenge.
Women did not have the right to vote but women in the United States had been given a license to practice law as full attorneys. Clara Martin was well aware that to the South, Ms Belle Mansfield had been called to the Iowa bar in 1869 and Belva Lockwood, in Washington, DC in 1873.
Neither burdened by children or husband, Martin whittled away. When the Law Society rejected Martin's first application by deferring to the absence of statutory authority to license women, she found a champion in the person of provincial premier and attorney general, Oliver Mowatt. Mowatt met with Martin and was won over. In the result, he tabled a bill in the Ontario legislature to amend the law society’s enabling legislation, to admit women.
But the prejudices of the time were hard won over. The bill struggled through the parliamentary process and when it was finally approved, it had been watered-down to allow women to act as solicitors only (solicitors are glorified notaries and are not allowed to represent clients in court, where the real fun and money was; this, the job of barristers). The law society amended its rules and Martin formally applied and was enrolled as a student-at-law, but with the prospect of solicitorship only.
Student-at-law did not make her a lawyer. She still had to find a place to apprentice (which lawyers refer to as "articling"). In 1893, she began her articles with a large Toronto law firm. History was in the making but not without Martin having yet to endure every sort of rudeness and rebuke from male court clerks and lawyers.
In a fascinating and thorough article on Clara Martin, Toronto author Theresa Roth writes of her:
"... three years of struggle and annoyance too petty to be put on record but nonetheless real ... in sneers, in lack of courtesy if not actual rudeness ... in the thousand ways that men can make a women suffer who stands among them alone.
"She once told a women (law) student, ‘You’ve entered a man’s profession, never expect them to wait on you.’"
Martin stoically bore it all and even approached the premier again, this time seeking admission as a full lawyer: barrister and solicitor.
In 1895, he obliged and the law society received the statutory authority to fully license women to the practice of law. The society dragged its feet but finally, in November of 1896, admission rules were amended, just as Clara Martin was completing her apprenticeship.
Fashion, it seems, as much or more so than competence, was an issue for the all-male law society. Women were to:
"... appear in a barrister’s gown worn over a black dress, wearing a white necktie and with her head uncovered."
Finally, on February 2, 1897, for the first time anywhere in the British Empire, which included England, South Africa and Australia, a woman was admitted to the practice of law.
In England itself, women would have to wait a further twenty years before being given similar rights. But not all was rosy even in Canada. Martin, as were all women, was still deprived of the right to vote.
Clara Martin, barrister and solicitor, made her way through several Toronto law firms eventually opening up her own firm in 1906, at 125 College Street.
Roth reports on suspicions that Martin may have faced too many prejudices to appear in court and that she:
" ... took on very little litigation and in her practice succeeded mainly as a solicitor."
But succeed she did, mostly in family law, wills and estates. She was an enthusiastic public speaker and spoke on the issue of women voting rights every chance she got. She supported the establishment of a Women’s Court.
Clara Brett Martin’s death on October 31, 1923 was sudden. But by then, her legacy was secure. She had tenaciously attained her goal of opening up the profession of law to women not just in Canada but giving it a hardy push around the world.
- Canada Law Journal, Volume 32, page 423 (1896)
- Roth, T., "Clara Brett Martin – Canada’s Pioneer Woman Lawyer", published in Law Society of Upper Canada Gazette, Volume XVIII, 1984, pages 323-340 Smith, Goldwin, Women in Politics, The Globe Newspaper, Toronto, April 12, 1895
- The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance extended by both Ms Roth and librarian Margaret Revell of the Great Library, Osgoode Hall, Toronto, Ontario on June 30, 2009, in researching the life of this great lawyer.