Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada

by Constance Backhouse

Ladies, Upstairs!: My Life in Politics and After

by Monique Bégin


As we navigate
feminism’s fourth wave, it can be easy to forget how we got here. The struggles of feminisms past have a lot to teach us about the tactics women marshalled to face down challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time; their stories not only give us hope but provide insight into the obstacles we face today. Two new books – a memoir and a double biography – contribute to this history by examining three women’s experiences during second-wave feminism’s focus on civil rights.

Ladies, Upstairs! is the memoir of Monique Bégin, one of the first female members of parliament from Quebec. There is a staggering amount of detail in this book about Bégin’s day-to-day activities – and this unfortunately becomes quite tedious. However, the book shines when Bégin shifts to an analysis of how women had to navigate politics and academia in an era where there were few female role models to follow.

Bégin credits her comfort as the only woman in a room full of men to her childhood as an immigrant in Montreal shortly after the Second World War; she was born in Rome in 1936 and was used to being an outsider. Her background, coupled with a degree in sociology, led her to pursue “public policy for simple justice, for women, for equity, and those who were in disadvantaged circumstances.” Bégin’s description of her work on the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada provides a window into the Canadian conversation on feminism at the time.

Elected as a federal Liberal in 1973, Bégin has a unique perspective as one of the first women with access to political power at that level. Along with her specific accomplishments, she describes the fractious atmosphere she encountered. For example, she realized that her traditional female education did not prepare her for success in a competitive political environment and that her male colleagues accepted her only as long as she stayed within the bounds of conventional female behaviour.

Bégin moved on to an academic career after leaving politics in 1984 and also served on domestic and international commissions through the 1990s. Her comments on academia and the role of these commissions are important contributions to understanding the continued barriers faced by women worldwide.

Constance Backhouse’s Two Firsts is a concise double biography of Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, the first two female judges on the Supreme Court of Canada. Backhouse is a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the legal history of gender and race in Canada; she uses that lens to examine how two different women confronted similar challenges.

Two Firsts is excellent because of Backhouse’s ability to both tell her subjects’ life stories and analyze their actions within personal and societal frameworks. Bertha Wilson was born in Scotland and came to Canada in 1949. A dutiful minister’s wife, she went to law school at Dalhousie University only when her husband’s absences left her time to pursue her own interests. Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, born in Quebec, knew early on that she wanted to be a lawyer; her confrontational nature helped convince her mother that the law was the best place for her. Both women experienced ostracism from classmates and professors; L’Heureux-Dubé, for example, was asked to leave during classroom discussions of sexual offences.

After graduation, both women made names for themselves in what were then niche disciplines, Wilson as a researcher and L’Heureux-Dubé in family law. Whether consciously or not, these choices helped them avoid confrontation with male colleagues. Both experienced what we now understand as workplace sexual harassment but felt that ignoring the behaviour was the best response. Backhouse concludes that this may have made them attractive candidates for the judiciary, since quiet stoicism was more comfortable for men than vocal feminism. After stints at provincial courts, Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982 and L’Heureux-Dubé joined her in 1987.

The chapters analyzing the two women’s Supreme Court decisions are fascinating. Backhouse uses their judgments, concurrences, and dissents to examine their personal evolution over time and how both grew less tolerant of a legal system created and practiced by men. They challenged male viewpoints in areas such as domestic abuse, abortion, prostitution, and rape.

One reason Two Firsts is so strong is that it also discusses its subjects’ flaws, including their refusal to be labelled feminists (possibly because “it was so hard to find a foothold that proclaiming feminism became unthinkable”). Backhouse also notes that neither woman made efforts to understand systemic racism while on the bench and, in this way, they were no different from their male colleagues. Wilson did change her views in retirement; L’Heureux-Dubé does not seem to have similarly evolved, coming out in favour of the Quebec government’s controversial face-cover ban in 2013.

The conclusions to Two Firsts and Ladies, Upstairs! remind us that there is still much work to be done to ensure that women are both fairly treated and adequately represented. They also remind us that not all women who break barriers set out to prove that they can do anything that men can do. While Two Firsts makes this point more succinctly and effectively, both books highlight how the fight for equality can include those inspired to fight for systemic change and those who simply seek to pursue their personal passions.