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the case for women in law Shirley Greenberg

by Moira Farr | July 7, 2006

The year is 1973, and Shirley Greenberg – a wife, mother and former legal secretary in her early 40s – is entering law school at the University of Ottawa. She's one of only nine women in a class of 60; of 1,000 lawyers practicing in Ottawa at the time, only ten are women. When Greenberg speaks in class, the men hoot, holler and bang on their desks. “It was humiliating,” says Greenberg, who retaliated by posting feminist cartoons on the school bulletin board.

The attitude of contempt and dismissal was reflective of women’s status in divorce law: before changes made in 1978 – changes people like Greenberg fought for – a woman had no right to property and other assets in her marriage, and could only hope to maximize support in what were often lengthy, bitter and expensive court battles. “The Murdoch case of 1973 brought that home,” says Greenberg, today a noted philanthropist and women’s advocate.

Ontario family law formalized an equal split of family assets by the time Greenberg was called to the bar in 1978. She could take pride in knowing that her own outspoken work pushing for change with “our little band” of women (such as lawyer Linda Silver Dranoff in Toronto, and many others) had paid off.

Starting the first all-female law firm in Ottawa with Katherine Aiken (now a Supreme Court judge), she could represent women fairly – women who now specifically searched out female lawyers, more of whom were graduating from law school all the time. During this time, Greenberg helped set up the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and the National Association of Women and the Law, which continues to promote equality right for women.

In Ontario, more change came in 1986 with the Family Law Act (consolidated in 1990), when women’s rights to a share of business, as well as family, assets was established. Issues surrounding valuation of assets, and entitlement to pensions, continue to be fought. While family property law is a provincial and territorial matter, what is done by one government often spurs change elsewhere.

This past June, a new Supreme Court ruling allows support payments to take into consideration the adverse consequences one spouse’s behaviour might have on the other (in the case in question, the woman claimed to have been so traumatized by the circumstances of her divorce, she was unable to work). Reaction is mixed; some in the legal profession regard it as a return to the concept of “fault.”

Greenberg doesn’t think so.

“I can understand the concern, but this is a good ruling. I’ve seen the terrible toll divorce can take, especially on a woman who has been in the home for 15 or 20 years, and who had no idea the marriage was going to end. It’s devastating.”

Today’s female law students and lawyers can take for granted better treatment, and healthy numbers in their ranks. “Women have proved their merit. It’s never assumed that a woman can't do the work and it was before,” says Greenberg.

Also still a challenge she recognizes: juggling career and family life. When Greenberg started law school at 41, her youngest daughter was 9 years old. “The timing was good, but it did mean a shorter career,” she says.

Now retired, she became the University of Ottawa’s largest individual benefactor in 2005. Greenberg puts her money to good use for women’s advocacy – a professorship exists in her name at the university, as does a women’s health centre at the Ottawa Hospital.

Greenberg urges women in professions such as the law to support each other. “Associations are still made on the golf course and in the clubs,” where women may not be as welcome or feel as comfortable, she notes. “Some women have avoided feminism like the plague, not wanting to offend the men.”

Greenberg, cited by many as a brilliant networker, believes it makes a lot more sense for women to form their own associations. No one could ever say it didn't work for her, and the thousands of women who’ve benefited from the changes she helped enact.

additional sources
  • Murdoch v. Murdoch and Family Property Law in Canada, excerpt from Women and legal action: precedents, resources and strategies for the future, Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, available on
  • Petticoats & Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada, by CONSTANCE BACKHOUSE, published for The Osgoode Society by Women’s Press

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


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