Women’s Law Association of Ontario

On February 27, 2020, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Women’s Law Association of Ontario unveiled a provincial plaque at Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School to commemorate the Women’s Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) and to honour and celebrate 100 years of advocacy and empowerment.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Founded in 1919, the Women's Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) was the first organization to work actively to create a place for women at Osgoode Hall. With membership open to law students, lawyers and judges, the non-profit organization advances issues relevant to women in law through networking, educational and social events. Strengthened by the women's rights movement, the WLAO's first 100 years marked Canada's first female lawyer being called to the bar, the first female leader of the regulator of the provincial bar, and the appointment of Canada's first female Supreme Court of Canada judge. The WLAO's campaigns influenced legislators, policy-makers, lawyers and judges to dismantle discrimination and enhance equality through law. Through advocacy, it fought employment and pay equity, criminal justice reform, and an end to gendered violence, racism, disability discrimination, homophobia and transphobia. The WLAO continues to empower women in the legal profession by providing a collective voice, and advocating for equality, diversity and change.


    Fondée en 1919, la Women’s Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) a été le premier organisme à travailler activement afin de réserver une place pour les femmes à Osgoode Hall. En permettant aux étudiantes en droit, aux avocates et aux juges d’y adhérer, l'organisme à but non lucratif promeut les enjeux propres aux femmes en droit par le biais d’événements de réseautage, éducatifs et sociaux. Avec le soutien du mouvement des droits des femmes, les 100 premières années de la WLAO ont marqué la nomination de la première avocate du Canada au barreau, la première femme à diriger l’organisme de réglementation du barreau provincial et la première femme juge nommée à la Cour suprême du Canada. Les campagnes de la WLAO ont incité les législateurs, les décideurs, les avocats et les juges à éliminer la discrimination et à renforcer l’égalité devant la loi. Dans le cadre de la défense des droits, la WLAO a recherché l'équité en matière d’emploi et de salaire, la réforme de la justice pénale et la fin de la violence sexiste, du racisme, de la discrimination fondée sur le handicap, de l'homophobie et de la transphobie. La WLAO continue de renforcer l’autonomie des femmes dans la profession juridique en apportant une voix collective et en défendant l'égalité, la diversité et le changement.

Historical background

The Women’s Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) was founded in Toronto in 1919.1 Clara Brett Martin was the keynote speaker at its inaugural annual dinner at the Inglewood Tea Room (Spadina and Bloor) on February 17, 1920.2 Called to the bar in Toronto in 1897, Martin became Canada’s first female lawyer as well as the first in the British Commonwealth.3 The achievement was due to the efforts of the “First Wave” women’s movement, which had lobbied for access to higher education and the professions, suffrage, married women’s property rights and temperance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.4 Few women initially followed Martin into law, but in 1919, Laura Denton Duff and Helen Currie established the Women's Law Association of Ontario (WLAO) to celebrate the first identifiable cohort.5 An antidote to the Lawyers Club, which refused membership to women until the 1970s, the WLAO strove to overcome the multiple barriers to equality in law.

In the many decades before women lawyers achieved parity in numbers with men, WLAO members promoted sweeping legal and social reforms while nurturing a supportive community for women in law. They held regular meetings, mostly in Toronto but occasionally in Hamilton, London, Ottawa and other centres where women lawyers worked in sufficient numbers to gather. They advocated juvenile prison reform and sought to improve labour standards, women’s property rights, divorce and adoption law, and access to welfare. They volunteered to present public lectures on criminal law, landlord and tenant rights, homelessness, estates, insurance and real estate law. Their protests successfully reversed Ontario’s efforts to fire all the female lawyers employed in the civil service during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They resisted discriminatory government efforts to lower the pay of female lawyers in the 1940s. They established a scholarship in honour of Clara Brett Martin, conducted professional education seminars, monitored the press coverage of women in law, and held seasonal dances and dinners.6

They celebrated when Helen Kinnear was named the first female King’s Counsel in 1934 (first in Canada and first in the British Commonwealth), a prestigious honour awarded to renowned senior lawyers. Celebrations occurred again in 1943 when Kinnear was named the first female county court judge in the British Commonwealth.7 Kinnear was given the title of Honorary WLAO President in 1949. Margaret Baird Campbell, who served as WLAO president from 1949 to 1951, was appointed a Family Court judge in 1971, and was elected as a member of the provincial parliament in 1973.8 The WLAO’s campaign to appoint more women judges struck a high note when Mabel Van Camp, WLAO past-president from 1957 to 1962, was named the first female judge on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 1971.9 Laura Legge, WLAO president from 1964 to 1966, was elected the Ontario Law Society’s first female bencher in 1975, and Treasurer of the Law Society, its first female head, in 1983.

The number of women lawyers rose only gradually between the 1920s and 1960s, swelling in times of war as vacancies opened up when men were recruited into the military, and diminishing again at wars’ end with the return of lawyer veterans. Those decades saw women largely isolated in solo practices or employed as the only woman in a small firm. Female litigators were rarities in courtrooms. Most did back-office solicitors’ work. Women continued on the fringes of the profession.10

The 1970s witnessed the first sustained, sizeable surge in numbers, a phenomenon that would continue apace until, by the WLAO’s 100th birthday, rough parity existed across Canada. It reflected the growing strength of the “Second Wave” women’s movement, as feminists demanded new opportunities in electoral politics, education, the media, the family, health and welfare, the labour market, sports and the arts.11 It resulted in an unprecedented critical mass of women entering the legal profession over the next decades. Bolstered by the powerful feminist movement in society at large, women lawyers found it possible to challenge sexism and discrimination more openly and radically.12

By the turn of the 20th century, a host of new contentious issues were on the table: hiring and promotion discrimination, pay differentials, sexual harassment, sexual assault, wife-battering and discrimination against racial minorities and Indigenous communities. Members campaigned for parental leave, childcare, partnership access to larger law firms, disability rights and equality for gays, lesbians and transgendered people – campaigns that continue to require vigilance into the 21st century.13

The WLAO President’s Award has recognized illustrious women lawyers and judges annually since 1987. Bertha Wilson, Canada’s first female Supreme Court Justice, was honoured in 1990. Margaret Hyndman QC, the first woman lawyer to appear before the Privy Council in London, was honoured in 1989. Recent recipients have encompassed the growing diversity of the profession, recognizing the contributions of African-Canadian lawyers Marva Jemmott QC (co-founder of the Delos Davis Law Guild, the first Black lawyers’ association) and Arleen Huggins (a leader with the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association and the Ontario Bar Association), African-Canadian judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré (the first Black judge in Quebec), Asian lawyer Avvy Yao-Yao Go (a leading activist for Chinese and South Asian clients seeking race equity) and Indigenous lawyer Delia Opekokew (the first First Nations’ individual admitted to the bar of Ontario and Saskatchewan).14 Some observers of the women’s movement credit the recent decades to the emergence of a “Third Wave” women’s movement, which seeks greater inclusivity relating to race, disability and diverse sexual identities. The WLAO’s activities mirror these important expansions of feminist activism.

The WLAO has had extraordinary longevity. With membership open to law students, lawyers and judges, the non-profit organization seeks to advance causes relevant to women in law through networking, educational and social events. Its equality campaigns have influenced legislators, policy makers, lawyers and judges. Its historical archives have been compiled by generations of members, but the main tribute is owed to Abby Bushby, WLAO’s volunteer archivist, who has laboured for four decades to ensure that this important history remains accessible for the future.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Constance Backhouse in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2022

1 Abby Bushby, “The Early Years: Sources of an Enduring Tradition: The Women’s Law Association of Ontario 1919-1950,” Law Society of Ontario Archives.

2 “Women’s Law Association Holds Dinner,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 17 February 1920, p. 10.

3 Constance Backhouse, Petticoats & Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press/Women’s Press, 2015).

4 Alison Prentice et al. Canadian Women: A History (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988).

5 Bushby, “The Early Years.”

6 “Government employs three women lawyers,” Globe and Mail (1930), WLAO Archives held by Law Society of Ontario, vol. 3, p. 34; Bushby, “The Early Years.”

7 Bushby, “The Early Years.”

8 “The Honourable Margaret Fasken Baird Campbell” oral history, Osgoode Society.

9 Constance Backhouse, Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada (Toronto: Second Story Press, 2018). The court was then titled the Supreme Court of Ontario.

10 Cameron Harvey, “Women in Law in Canada” (1970) 4 Manitoba Law Journal 9. For numbers, see Appendix A at p. 289 in Constance Backhouse and W. Wesley Pue, The Promise and Perils of Law (Toronto: Irwin, 2009).

11 Nancy Adamson et al., Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988).

12 Constance Backhouse, “A Revolution in Numbers,” in Backhouse and Pue, Promise and Perils at 265; Appendix A at p. 289.

13 Backhouse, “Revolution in Numbers”; Abby Bushby and Josée Bouchard, unpublished presentation at Herstories Café, Toronto, 2013.

14 For full list, see