Petticoats & Prejudices: Women & the Law in Nineteenth Century Canada // Review

Article excerpt

Reviewed by Ellen Jacobs Department of History Universite du Quebec a Montreal Montreal (Qc)

Constance Backhouse, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Western Ontario, has produced a basic text for all those interested in the legal status of women in n ineteenth -- century Canada. In a series of ten chapters, each addressed to an aspect of women's lif e cycles and legal status, Backhouse introduces an array of individual lives (women appear as plaintiffs, defendants, accused criminals, witnesses and legal reformers) before an array of men (judges, attorneys, fathers, brothers and sons, all of whom controlled the operation of a white, heterosexist, patriarchal system of law).

Drawing largely upon judicial accounts and contemporary newspaper accounts, Backhouse attempts to construct for the reader a view of Canadian society as seen through the problematic of the legal status of women. This noble effort is rather diminished, as the au thor herself notes in her introduction, by the prejudices of the law and its proponents. Women of the First Nations and women of colour, she notes, rarely appear, and when they do, it is in stereo typical ways. Lesbians, too, do not appear, as "the historical record treats them all as heter osexual" (p. 7). Social historians might differ with her by suggesting that it is not the histori cal record per se which excludes lesbians, or women of colour, or women of the First Nations or im migrant women from "the record," but the nature of the sources consulted and the general context and manner in which one attempts to reconstruct the past.

There are other aspects in which this fine and ambitious study does not qui te satisfy. The author draws largely upon Ontario sources, with a scattering of references to ca ses which appear in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. Within this rather smaller framework of s tudy, the author offers a series of paradigmatic cases which she argues are representative of the legal status of women and which she rather interestingly attempts to reconstruct in te rms of mini - biographical sketches. Ultimately, however, these sketches are neither satisfyi ng as biography nor as social history. These case studies appear as legal history of an enriche d sort.

In her first three chapters, which comprise Part One of the book, Backhouse studies "the regulation of marriage, courtship and sexual violence." The first chapter, "The Ceremony of Marriage," introduces the reader to several cases of marriage between First Nati on women and white men. …