International Women’s Day 2021 – Choose to Challenge
March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day that recognizes and celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and girls globally. This year’s theme is Choose to Challenge. A challenged world is an alert world and positive change comes from challenging why things are the way they are.
Throughout history, many women have had to challenge gender-bias, inequality and legislation to enter the legal profession.
The History of Canadian Women in the Legal Profession
The Law Society of Upper Canada was founded in 1797 but it did not admit its first female lawyer until 100 years later in 1897. In 1891, Clara Brett Martin submitted a petition to join the Law Society of Upper Canada as a student member so she could article as a clerk but was rejected based on her sex. After a contentious debate, a new bill that challenged the interpretation of the word “person” in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s statute insisted that it should be interpreted to include females as well as males. Clara was called to the bar in 1897, making her the first woman to become a lawyer in both Canada and the British Commonwealth.
Closer to home, the Law Society of Alberta admitted its first female lawyer, Lilian Ruby Clements in 1915 and in 1954, Canada’s first Black female lawyer, Violet King Henry, was called to the Alberta bar. In 1977, Marion Ironquill Meadmore became Canada’s first Indigenous female lawyer when she was called to the bar in Manitoba.
By challenging the laws and social paradigms that barred them from the legal profession, these women paved the way for future generations of women to pursue their own legal careers.
In 1957, one per cent of the 355 practising lawyers in Alberta were female; by 1987, that number jumped to 17 per cent. In 2019, 40 per cent of practising lawyers in Alberta were female and one per cent was transgender.
Female students now outnumber male students in most law schools across Canada. While the number of women in the legal industry is growing, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) notes that has not yet translated into a significant increase in women in top management positions and women still leave the profession at a higher rate than their male colleagues.
According to the CBA, discriminatory workplace environments, carrying a disproportionate share of domestic and childcare duties, and a desire for enriched lives beyond their careers (even for women who do not have children) are the primary reasons why many women do not stay.
The Law Society continues to work at pursuing equity in the legal profession through policy development, implementation of part-time membership fees and ongoing programs being developed through our Strategic Plan.
Choosing to Challenge in 2021
For more information, view the following list of resources, organizations, articles and events relating to International Women’s Day:
- Alberta Women Lawyers (Calgary)
- Women Lawyers’ Forum (North)
- Status of Women Canada: International Women’s Day
- Black Female Lawyers Network
- How to celebrate International Women’s Day in Calgary
- International Women’s Day Edmonton
- Lethbridge Library: International Women’s Day
- University of Alberta: Women and Men in the Practice of Law
- CBA – Alberta Branch: Sticks and Stones: Female Lawyers and Gendered Criticism
- How female lawyers are redefining success