The Meteoric Rise and Precipitous Fall of Clara Brett Martin

By Martin, Robert | Inroads, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Meteoric Rise and Precipitous Fall of Clara Brett Martin


Martin, Robert, Inroads


Thoughts on the misuse of history

THE HEAD OFFICE OF ONTARIO'S MINISTRY OF THE ATTORNEY General is located, appropriately enough, on Bay Street in Toronto. The building itself is unsettling, a bit too arriviste in the shiny pink of its marble facing, although not nearly so crass as the police headquarters a few blocks to the north.

Even a casual passerby is struck by the building's name, or former name. It is evident the structure was once called the Clara Brett Martin Building, in both English and French. But the letters which proudly proclaimed its name to the world have been ripped from it, amputated. No effort has yet been made to cover the scars.

Who was Clara Brett Martin and why would anyone want to put her name on a building, let alone tear it off?

Martin was born in 1874, into a Toronto family which was both wealthy and, it seems, well connected. She received a BA degree from the University of Toronto at the age of 16 and then made a momentous decision. She wanted to become a lawyer. This was momentous because there was not then a single female lawyer in the entire country. It took her seven years and great determination, but in 1897 Clara Brett Martin became the first woman in Canada to be admitted to the practice of law. Her family's wealth and connections could not have been hindrances in her quest.

And that, frankly, is pretty much the story of Clara Brett Martin's life. Her career as a lawyer was virtually indistinguishable from that of other Toronto lawyers of the period. She accumulated clients, influence and wealth. She dabbled in municipal politics. She did not, however, marry. At the age of 49 she suffered a heart attack and died.

There is only one reason to remember Clara Brett Martin, one memorable achievement in her life. Unfortunately, Martin has suffered much in recent years from the use of history to fight political battles in the present rather than as a means of understanding and illuminating the past. Propaganda, masquerading as history, turned Martin into something of a saint. And then her reputation was shattered as quickly as it had been created.

Miss Martin, for I have no doubt that is the way she would have wished to be addressed, began her rise to public prominence in 1985, 62 years after her death. In 1985 a new academic journal, the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, much subsidized by public funds, made its first appearance. It opened an article entitled "To Open the Way for Others of my Sex': Clara Brett Martins Career as Canada's First Woman Lawyer" by Professor Constance Backhouse of the University of Western Ontario's Faculty of Law. Though Backhouse was not the first contemporary writer to have discovered Martin, it was her article which was primarily responsible for propelling Martin, posthumously, into the limelight.

Backhouse's account of Martin's life was adulatory and uncritical. She chronicled Martins struggle against male chauvinism to become a lawyer in loving detail. Much was made of the determined opposition she faced; but no explanation was offered for the fact that a number of male lawyers and legislators, most notably the Premier of Ontario, Sir Oliver Mowat, actively supported Martin in her desire to become a lawyer.

So one leaves her essay with a fundamental historical question unanswered. If the opposition to the entry of women into the legal profession was as intense as Backhouse suggests, how could a woman have been called to the Bar?

Whatever its limitations as history, the article, which ended with a plea for greater public recognition of Martin - going to the point of including a mailing address for contributions to pay for a portrait to be hung at Osgoode Hall - succeeded as propaganda.

It was announced a centre for feminist legal studies at York University would be named after Clara Brett Martin. An awkward painting of her, taken from a contemporary photograph, was prominently displayed in the law building at the University of Western Ontario. …

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