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The rise and fall of Clara Brett Martin

Thoughts on the misuse of history

The head office of Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is located, appro-priately 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 Eng-lish 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 prac-tice 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 shat-tered 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 Martin’s 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 chroni-cled Martin’s 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 ad-dress for contributions to pay for a portrait to be hung at Osgoode Hall – suc-ceeded 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 con-temporary photograph, was prominently displayed in the law building at the Uni-versity of Western Ontario. The University of Toronto law school used her name for a series of feminist workshops.
But Miss Martin’s greatest posthumous triumph came in 1989. Ian Scott, then the Ontario Attorney General, had been looking for a name for his new headquar-ters. Apparently dazzled by Backhouse’s article, he decided to call it the Clara Brett Martin Building.
This decision surprised at least one person. Theresa Roth, head of reference services for the legal profession’s Great Library at Osgoode Hall, had herself writ-ten an account of Martin’s efforts to become a lawyer.1 Roth was quoted as saying of Scott’s decision to name his building after Martin, “After all we still didn’t know much about her. No one ever said she was a brilliant lawyer or anything.”2
The Clara Brett Martin Building was officially inaugurated with a glittering recep-tion, “Rendezvous with Time,” on September 22, 1989. Among the 600 people in attendance were three female Supreme Court of Canada judges.
I had been vaguely aware of all this, but my interest in Clara Brett Martin was not piqued until the late spring of 1990. A friend who lives in Toronto told me there were stories circulating about Clara Brett Martin being anti-Semitic. Rumour had it there was some sort of document which demonstrated this. It was at that point I first read Professor Backhouse’s article. My efforts to get a copy of the mystery document, however, proved futile.
And then one day a fax arrived. I still do not know from where. With the fax was a copy of a letter. The letter, typed on Clara Brett Martin’s law office stationery, had been written to the Attorney General of Ontario on March 26, 1915. In it Martin complained about a practice which she believed to be widespread. Unscrupulous persons were registering bogus claims against titles to land. This made it far more difficult and expensive for the legitimate owners to sell or transfer their land. These “scandalous” doings, according to Martin, were the work of “foreigners,” especially “Jews.” No individual was identified by name in Martin’s letter, but she gave examples of the behaviour she was criticizing, attributing each to a “Jew.”
The letter, I found out subsequently, had been discovered, in 1985 or 1986, by Peter Sibenik, a graduate student at Osgoode Hall Law School, who was doing research in the Ontario Archives on quite a different subject. It is highly unlikely that Constance Backhouse’s researches into the life of Clara Brett Martin would have led her to the letter.
I write a regular column for a newspaper called The Lawyers Weekly as well as being, like Constance Backhouse, in the University of Western Ontario law faculty. I decided to write a column about Clara Brett Martin. My column was published on July 20, 1990. Its thesis was that Clara Brett Martin’s canonization as a secular saint was premature, the product of bad history.
I wrote about the 1915 letter, but there was more. Backhouse had written of the size of Martin’s estate on her death. There was a “large and handsome” house on Roxborough Street. There were also “seven row houses” on Napier Street in Toronto described as “investment properties.”
I tried to discover where Napier Street might be. There is no Napier Street to-day. It was in the part of Cabbagetown, once described by Hugh Garner as the largest white slum in the world, which was demolished after the Second World War to make way for the Regent Park public housing development. It seemed likely that Clara Brett Martin was a slum landlord.
Backhouse had sought to portray Martin as having progressive social ideas. She was said to have been sensitive to “working class interests in education” and to have been a supporter of “daycare” for “working parents.” These assertions seemed to me, given Martin’s background and the social milieu in which she moved, wildly improbable.
About Clara Brett Martin I wrote: “Clara was not a bad person. Nor was she a particularly outstanding person. She was … simply typical of her time, her place, and her class … Clara Brett Martin did one remarkable thing in her life.”
The Lawyers Weekly column was immediately picked up by the Globe and Mail, which made reference to the 1915 letter and my assertion that Clara Brett Martin was a slum landlord. It also contained a foretaste of how difficult it was going to be to deal with the issue. Nancy Jackman, described as “a well-known Toronto feminist philanthropist,” was quoted as saying that the women who have “heralded Clara Brett Martin should not be held fully responsible for this when it is the legal profession, the media, and the general censorship of Ontario society that has obliterated women’s work.” No specifics were provided as to how exactly “the general censorship of Ontario society” operated.3
The Globe is exceedingly influential. Martin’s star began to set. The wom-en-and-the-law caucus at the University of Toronto Law School changed the name of the Clara Brett Martin Workshop Series. The Clara Brett Martin Institute at Osgoode Hall Law School was renamed the Institute for Feminist Legal Research. The funds for the full-sized portrait at Osgoode Hall evaporated. And the Attorney General in Ontario’s freshly elected New Democratic Party government, Howard Hampton, was having second thoughts about the name of his building. A spokesperson was quoted to have said: “It will probably be named after a woman again. But this time we’re going to do better research.”3 …
The next important event in the saga was the publication in 1991 of Constance Backhouse’s book, Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth Century Canada. Chapter 10 of the book retold the story of Clara Brett Martin. The chapter is clearly based on the 1985 article, but much had changed. The references to Martin’s support of working class education and daycare centres disappeared. The 1915 letter was openly acknowledged and, indeed, reproduced in a footnote. Backhouse acknowledged that Martin’s row houses were in Cabbagetown, but offered this improbable justification in a footnote on page 438:
Assessment rolls indicate that the value of the buildings and property was some-what better than that of neighbouring properties. Since Clara Brett Martin had consistently maintained rents that compared favourably with those of other land-lords, these row houses had attracted a stable group of tenants, most of whom were from the skilled sector of the labouring class.
In the introduction the author set out her views about the writing of history. She took several pages to apologize for the fact that most of the women whose stories are recounted in her book were “white, middle-class, apparently heterosexual,” that there was only one “First Nations” woman presented and no blacks, no disabled women and, “the most glaring omission,” no lesbians. But she made no attempt to apologize for what she asserted on page 2 to be her central purpose in writing: the creation of “heroines.” …
On May 18, 1993, prominent Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby published an article about Martin in The Globe and Mail. Ruby … was not prepared to accord heroine status to Miss Martin. He was, he said, as a Jew “affronted” and “humiliated” by the fact the Attorney General’s building was named after her: “The fact remains that this vicious anti-Semite is now honoured.” The name was removed in 1994.
Bad history was demolished by even worse history. Martin was probably an an-ti-Semite, but she was not a vicious anti-Semite. Julius Streicher, Heinrich Himm-ler and Joseph Goebbels were vicious anti-Semites. The fundamental point is that Clara Brett Martin was not honoured because of her opinions on Jews or any other group, and not because she was or was not a heroine. She was honoured because she was the first woman in Canada to become a lawyer.
I cannot avoid asking what seems to me to be an essential question. Why must Clara Brett Martin be mythologized? Why can she not simply be what she was – a real woman who lived in a real time and place? The answer seems obvious – myths have more value to the propagandist than do real women. We should not have historians creating heroines (or heroes). We should recognize historical fig-ures for what they are and not demand that persons who lived in other times con-form to contemporary notions of what is acceptable.
The portrait of Clara Brett Martin which once hung in the University of Western Ontario law school has been taken down and hidden away. She is now utterly dishonoured. Her creator received a major American historical writing award in 1993 for Petticoats and Prejudice.
Notes
1 “Clara Brett Martin – Canada’s pioneer woman lawyer,” (1984) 18 Gazette 325.
2 Edward Hore, “What’s in a name,” Saturday Night, April 1992, p. 18.
3 Kirk Makin, “Image of first woman lawyer tainted by anti-Semitic letters,” Globe and Mail, July 19, 1990.
4 Hore, “What’s in a name,” p. 22.

by Robert Martin

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About the Author

Robert Martin
University of Western Ontario professor of Law.




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