Clara Brett Martin

Clara Brett Martin (25 January 1874 30 October 1923), born to Abram and Elizabeth Martin, a well-to-do Anglican-Irish family, opened the way for women to become lawyers in Canada by being the first in the British Empire in 1897.

Clara Brett Martin
Born(1874-01-25)25 January 1874
Toronto, Ontario
Died30 October 1923(1923-10-30) (aged 49)
Toronto, Ontario

In 1888, Martin was accepted to Trinity College in Toronto. And in 1890, Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at the age of sixteen, which was almost unheard of because of the masculinity associated with that field.[1]

In 1891, Martin submitted a petition to the Law Society of Upper Canada to permit her to become a student member, a prerequisite to articling as a clerk, attending lectures and sitting the exams required to receive a certificate of fitness to practice as a solicitor.

Her petition was rejected by the Law Society after contentious debate, with the Special Committee reviewing the petition interpreting the statute which incorporated the Law Society as permitting only men to be admitted to the practice of law. W.D. Balfour sponsored a bill that provided that the word "person" in the Law Society's statute should be interpreted to include females as well as males. Martin's cause was also supported by prominent women of the day including Emily Stowe and Lady Aberdeen. With the support of the Premier, Oliver Mowat, legislation was passed on April 13, 1892, and permitted the admission of women as solicitors. 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 & accused persons.

In 1893, Martin articled with the Toronto firm of Mulock, Miller, Crowther, and Montgomery,[2] but was treated so poorly by her articling peers and the firm's secretaries that she was forced to switch to prominent Toronto law firm Blake, Lash and Cassels, now known as Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.[3]

In 1897 she graduated B.C.L. from Trinity University, Toronto. "After special regulations had been framed by the Law Society, ... she was called to the bar of Ontario, and entered into partnership with Messrs. Shilton & Wallbridge. In 1899 she was admitted to the degree of LL.B. by Toronto University, being the first lady in Canada to receive that honour."[4]

In later life, Martin ran for Toronto City Council in Ward 2 but was defeated in the 1920 municipal election.

In 1989, the provincial government announced that Martin was to be honoured by having the building housing the Ministry of the Attorney General named after her. The government revoked the honour after an anti-Semitic letter written by her in 1915 came to light.[5][6]

In the episode "On the Waterfront (Part 2)" of the crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Martin, portrayed by Patricia Fagan, is introduced and helps the female characters in their endeavor to advance women's suffrage.

See also


  1. Backhouse, Constance (1991). Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth Century Canada. Osgoode Society. pp. 297–299. ISBN 978-0-88961-161-0.
  2. Constance Backhouse; Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History (1999). Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950. University of Toronto Press. pp. 398–. ISBN 978-0-8020-8286-2.
  3. Backhouse, Constance (2005). "Martin, Clara Brett". In Cook, Ramsay; Bélanger, Réal (eds.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XV (1921–1930) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  4. Morgan, Henry James, ed. (1903). Types of Canadian Women and of Women who are or have been Connected with Canada. Toronto: Williams Briggs. p. 229.
  6. Mary Jane Mossman (31 May 2006). The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Professions. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 111–. ISBN 978-1-84731-095-8.
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