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Clara Brett Martin

by Beth Atcheson | April 23, 2003

Clara Brett Martin was born in Toronto in 1874 and died in 1923 at the age of 49. Her original claim to fame is that she was the first woman lawyer in Ontario, Canada and the British Empire. At the age of 23, she was admitted as a solicitor and called to the bar as a barrister on February 2, 1897.

This afternoon, Miss Clara Brett Martin was presented to the judges at Osgoode Hall and was sworn in as a barrister. She wore a black gown over a black dress and the regulation white tie and bore her honours modestly.

— The Toronto Telegram

Clara Brett Martin had to fight for her place before the bar. Most of what we know about her life has been gleaned from the public records of the day by interested women researchers. Her place in our history, however, is not secure. There is evidence that she held anti-Semitic views, and allegations that she was a slum landlord.

In the 20th century, Clara Brett Martin rose (or was elevated) and tumbled (or was pushed) from public grace. Her life illustrates some bigger themes around gender and society, and poses some fundamental questions about values and how we apply them – to others and to ourselves.

Martin’s early life

Martin was the youngest of the 12 children born to Abram (Abraham) and Elizabeth (née Brett) Martin. Her father had immigrated from Sligo, Ireland, in 1832, but either her father or her mother’s family must have come from Hungary, since Clara Brett Martin was later described as having Hungarian and Irish ancestry. Abraham farmed in Mono township for a number of years and was a superintendent of schools. Elizabeth Brett Martin came from a prominent banking family; her father, James Brett, was a civil engineer for York County.

Martin was educated at home with her siblings under the guidance of tutors. In an era when less than 1% of the Canadian population attended university, all the Martin children received some university education. Martin entered the Arts program at Trinity College, now part of the University of Toronto, in 1888. (In 1875, Grace Annie Lockhart had become the first woman to graduate from a Canadian university, with a Bachelor of Science degree from Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick.) Trinity College began to admit women students – the women were actually allowed to attend classes, although they were not encouraged to do so and if they did, they were asked to sit separately on chairs apart from the rest of the class – in 1885. Martin majored in mathematics at Trinity and graduated with high honours at the age of 16 in June, 1890.

In pursuing higher education, Martin had entered a gender war that was waged for decades. To give you a small taste of the particular battle over education for women, here is a quote from a widely circulated medical journal, Canada Lancet, in 1892:

Quoting directly from the English physician [Sir James Chrichton-Browne], “Sir James said he regarded [female admission] as a retrograde and mischievous step, for what was decided amongst the prehistoric protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament.” Chrichton-Browne belittled educated women as “sweet young graduates” and “pantaloon-like girls,” with “stooping gait and withered appearance, shrunk shanks, and spectacles on nose.” Admitting that this was a “melancholy outlook,” the medical editors offered the hope that in Canada “withered, shrunken-shanked girls will always be a poor miserable minority.”

Nor would her choice of mathematics as a subject have been less controversial at the time.

We should not be too quick to dismiss the views of the time as ill-informed or out-dated. Other commentators made explicit what the elites were worried about then, and what is understood by elites today in repressive regimes around the world – knowledge is power. In 1876, a contributor to the Queen’s Journal wrote that:

The conferring of degrees on women would encourage them to enter the professions and public life, and would permit them to implement the goals of the women’s rights movement, developments he much deplored. He confidently concluded that “among people who appreciate the delicate grace and beauty of woman’s character too much to expose it too the rude influences, the bitterness and strife of the world, few will be found to advocate her admission to universities.”

Martin chooses law

After graduation, Martin went to work as other (single) women were increasingly doing. She became a teacher, but only for a year. In 1891, at the age of 17, she took a bold step and submitted a petition to the Law Society of Upper Canada to be admitted as a student member. We have no indication as to why she chose law. Her father seems to have died in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Martin, who always insisted on the use of Brett in her name might have been influenced by her mother. The Toronto Globe reported in Elizabeth Brett Martin’s obituary on February 10, 1910, that she was a woman of “rightness of mind and accuracy of memory,” with a “keen interest in public affairs.”

It would appear that Martin appreciated the challenges she faced before she applied because she said in her petition that “owing to the fact of her being a lady she is aware that the circumstances of her case are different than those of the ordinary Student-at-Law.” She optimistically appealed to a “broad spirit of liberality and fairness that characterizes members of the legal profession.”

We must remind ourselves of the backdrop to her application. As Canada prepared to enter the 20th century, women were barred from participation in, let alone any influence on or control over, the legal system at its fullest – women could not be voters, legislators, coroners, magistrates, judges or jurors. They were visible in the courts as litigants, witnesses and accused persons. Then as now, women found almost every stage of their lives touched by the law, from courtship through marriage, from consensual sexual encounters to forcible ones, throughout all aspects of fertility and reproduction, through marital breakdown, separation, divorce and child custody, and in the field of paid work.

Martin could have chosen to seek admission through another route – admission by a private act – that would have applied only to her. (This route had been pursued successfully by the first black lawyer in Ontario. Unable to find a white lawyer willing to hire a black student-at-law, Delos Rogest Davis of Amherstberg had petitioned the legislature in 1884 for admission by statute. He argued for admission on the basis that he had been studying law for eleven years and practising as a commissioner for taking affidavits and as a notary public. In 1885, he was admitted as a solicitor under special statute, and a year later he was admitted as a barrister via the same route.) Martin chose the route that would open the doors, eventually, to all women. The press saw the bigger issue immediately, and for the rest of her life Martin was to feature in the media in a prominent way.

At the time, prospective lawyers had to complete three stages to qualify:

  1. as a student-at-law – an entrance exam (usually waived with a university degree), a certificate of fitness and good character signed by the lawyer who had agreed to take the applicant as an articled clerk;
  2. as a solicitor – clerk for three years, attendance at a series of part-time lectures, examinations; and,
  3. as a barrister – two more years of articles, more lectures, examinations.

law rejects Martin – she is not a “person”

Martin’s application was referred to a special committee of the benchers (the name for those chosen to over see the legal profession in Ontario, still in use today). It considered only the question of whether women were “permitted” to be accepted and never heard from Martin. The governing statute used the word “persons.” The Special Committee and the benchers in Convocation held that it could not be interpreted to include women and volleyed the matter to the legislature. The Law Society told Martin the answer was no, and offered the thought that she could move to the United States where women had been allowed before the Supreme Court since 1879. This interpretive approach would not be dumped until after the Person’s Case was decided in 1929.

Within six months, William Douglas Balfour, an Amherstberg newspaper publisher and Member of Parliament (the same MP who has supported Davis), had introduced a bill compelling the Law Society to interpret the word “person” to include women. Martin sought the support of other women, principally Dr. Emily Stowe, then leader of the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association (and one of the first women doctors in Canada). In spite of the support of the Premier, Sir Oliver Mowat, in order to ensure passage, the bill was diluted to clarify that the Law Society had the power to admit women as students-at-law.

So, the legislature volleyed back to the Law Society. This time, the benchers did vote to admit Martin – by a margin of one and only after the Premier attended Convocation (the term for a meeting of benchers, also still in use today) in his capacity as ex officio bencher. Martin was formally entered as a student-at-law on June 26, 1893, and she immediately began her articles for a prominent Toronto firm of Mulock, Miller, Crowther and Montgomery.

In a rare personal comment, this proved to be a low point for Martin. She was quoted by the Buffalo Express at the time:

If it were not that I set out to open the way to the bar for others of my sex, I would have given up the effort long ago. You would not believe how many obstacles I have had to overcome single-handed. I was articled to one of the largest law firms in Toronto, and when I put in my appearance I was looked upon as an interloper, if not a curiosity. The clerks avoided me and made it as unpleasant for me as they possibly could (I dislike to make such a charge against the young gentlemen of Canada), and for a time it looked as if I were doomed to failure through a source I had not reckoned.

She subsequently switched to another established Toronto firm, Blake, Lash, Cassels. Articled students also attended mandatory lectures. Martin was required to sit apart from her male colleagues and to bear their hissing and verbal threats. At a time when the drop-out rate for students-at-law approached 70%, Martin successfully completed her exams, finishing first, and contemplated going on to become a barrister.

She had to start all over again. The Law Society declined to admit her, the legislature passed a bill authorizing the Law Society to admit women as barristers, Martin lined up her support (this time going to significant clients of benchers). Mowat (now the former premier) intervened and Martin was admitted to the barrister stream (after settling the controversy over what women should wear in court).

Martin would also complete a Bachelor of Civil Law degree at Trinity College in 1897 and an LL.B. from the University of Toronto in 1899.

Martin fights, wins and opens a practice

Martin, to her credit, then set out to practice law and advertised for a position in the The Toronto Telegram. She worked in the law firm of Sheldon and Wallbridge, either as a junior or sharing space.

By 1901, her name was added to the firm name.

In 1906, she left to establish her own law office, which she maintained until her death at the age of 49, practising primarily in the areas of conveyancing, mortgages, wills and family law.

She was not a leader of the growing women’s movement, but a steady force for betterment in the community. She hired women law students, supported suffrage, worked to establish a provincial Women’s Court, published a survey of Canadian laws relating to women and ran (unsuccessfully) for city council.

She served for 10 years on the Toronto Board of Education, understanding that education was a prerequisite to reducing the subordination of women. On one occasion, a board member who as a physician proposed an upper age limit of 30 for new women teachers. Martin moved a motion that “doctors’ certificates be not accepted unless duly sworn to before a notary that the said doctors’ ages do not exceed 30 years.”

how Martin is remembered

Martin’s name arose in publications from time to time after her death, but her life was not examined in any major way until the early 1980s. This was the start of a period of intense research and publication of women’s lives and women’s history that continues today. Martin’s profile was at its peak when the Attorney-General for the Province of Ontario announced that the new office of that branch of government would be named the Clara Brett Martin Building.

On September 22, 1989, a gala reception called “Rendezvous with Time” was held to mark the official opening of the ... Building. Specially printed, oversized invitations with drawings of Martin went out to prominent women lawyers and judges, including the three women judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. Six hundred people came. White-gloved policemen in 1890s uniforms greeted guests at the door. Inside, elaborate displays re-created typical rooms form the 1890s, complete with mannequins in period costumes. Three actors played a deeply moving play about Martin’s struggle. Doug Spencer, a ministry employee involved in setting up [the opening] recalls that when the actress playing Martin made her final speech, many women in the audience, and some men, broke down and wept.

— Edward Hore, Saturday Night | April 1992

Less than a year later, in July, 1990, Martin was tumbling fast down the mountain of public acclaim. A University of Western Ontario law professor published a letter written by Martin in March, 1915, to a lawyer in the Attorney-General’s office. The letter was originally found in Archives of Ontario files of old Attorney-General correspondence by Peter Sibenik (graduate student, Osgoode Hall Law School) who was researching his doctoral thesis on the criminal justice system in Toronto from 1894 to 1919.

The letter is a complaint about the way titles to property were being clouded by the registration of fake agreements of purchase and sale. It gives specific examples, each attributed to a “Jew” and asks that “the Registry Act [be] amended to prevent this scandalous work of foreigners.” Whether or not these references would be considered anti-Semitic in their day, they are unquestionably anti-Semitic to our eyes. In the course of his article, the professor also alleged that Martin was a slum landlord, presumably referring to Cabbagetown properties that she owned at her death.

Calls were made by individuals to remove Martin’s name from the building, and for leaving it there given the number of buildings named after men who were anti-Semitic (possibly amongst other things). The organizations you might have expected to engage on the fate of the recognition were publicly silent.

Ian Scott declined to remove the name two months before the Liberal government in which he served was defeated by the NDP. The next Attorney-General removed the name and the government of the day treated the matter as an administrative detail. Curiously, the name is still there in silhouette, reminding us of her life and her legacy. It would be decades before women would be called to the bar in each province of Canada, and it would be decades more before they entered the profession in any numbers.

– 1897 | Clara Brett Martin
– 1960 | first Black woman, Myrtle Blackwood Smith
– 1976 | first Aboriginal woman, Roberta Jamieson

New Brunswick**
– 1906 | Mabel Penery French

British Columbia**
– 1911 | Mabel Penery French

Manitoba and Saskatchewan
– 1915

– 1917

Nova Scotia
– 1918

Prince Edward Island
– 1926

Newfoundland and Labrador
– 1933

– 1941
– 1956 | (notaries)

** required resort to the legislature or the courts, or both

more to consider

When the controversy about Martin’s name on the building hit the news in Toronto, nobody took the leadership to bring all the interested parties together and talk about what was at stake and what could be done. Opinions from elites found their way into the media, the new government did not want to deal with it, and the easiest thing to do was to remove the name. Many women, afraid of the controversy and afraid to be seen as defending anti-Semitism, stayed neutral or quiet. Those arguing that the name should come down because of the anti-Semitism had no incentive to think about the other aspects of Martin’s life, or how to portray her life. The media liked the controversy, the government didn’t. There is no easy way for different communities of interest to speak with each other and they didn’t try. There is always a cost to not trying, even if it takes a long time for us to see it.

resources for this story
  • Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in the Nineteenth-Century Canada, by CONSTANCE BACKHOUSE, The Osgoode Society | 1991
  • Clara Brett Martin - Canada’s Pioneer Women Lawyer, by THERESA ROTH, The Law Society Gazette, volume XVIII, number 3 | 1984
  • A Path Not Strewn with Roses: One Hundred Years of Women at the University of Toronto 1884–1984, by ANNE ROCHON FORD, University of Toronto Press | 1985
  • The Proper Sphere, by RAMSAY COOK and WENDY MITCHINSON, Oxford University Press | 1976
  • Canadian Women on the Move 1867–1920, by BETH LIGHT and JOY PARR, New Hogtown Press and OISE | 1983
  • The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada, by CATHERINE L. CLEVERDON, University of Toronto Press | 1950
  • Canadian Women: A History, by ALISON PRENTICE, PAULA BOURNE, GAIL CUTHBERT BRANDT, BETH LIGHT, WENDY MITCHINSON and NAOMI BLACK, Harcourt Brace Canada, particularly Part 2, The New Pioneers: The Mid-Nineteenth Century to the End of the Great War, 2nd ed. | 1996
  • Women and Legal Action: Precedents, Resources and Strategies for the Future, by M. ELIZABETH ATCHESON, MARY EBERTS, BETH SYMES and JENNIFER STODDART, Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women | 1984

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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