We Are Not There Yet! Why Recognizing Women Who Fight for Equality is as Important as Ever

  • January 24, 2017
  • Daniella Murynka

Last week, I topped my list of nerve-wracking, new-lawyer moments when, heart pounding, I telephoned the Honourable Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 1987 to 2002 and the second woman in Canadian history to be appointed to that position. As a member of the Executive of the Ontario Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum (“WLF”), I was contacting past recipients of the WLF’s Award of Excellence, which honours feminist women who have significantly promoted women’s equality.  I was calling to see if Justice L’Heureux-Dubé would speak with me about her experience receiving the Award of Excellence in 1996, its inaugural year. 

The WLF is lucky to have many long-standing active members, including the venerable Linda Silver Dranoff, herself a recipient of the Award of Excellence in 2005 and founder in 1992 of the WLF’s predecessor, the Feminist Legal Analysis Committee (pointedly abbreviated to “FLAC”), which in 1993 became an OBA Section.

As FLAC’s founding Chair, Ms. Dranoff had the honour of presenting the first Award of Excellence to Justice L’Heureux-Dubé over twenty years ago. “We had an extremely large turnout,” she recalled, when I asked for her memories of that day. “Everyone was so excited to meet Justice L’Heureux-Dubé and hear her talk.” In her presentation, Ms. Dranoff stressed that Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s jurisprudence reflected an understanding of women’s unique equality needs. “In my view, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé saw women and our legal needs as we truly were, rather than according to the stereotypes that existed in the law,” Ms. Dranoff told me. “It was an eye opener for the audience to see how much impact a feminist jurist could have, and which she of course has had.”

Toronto research lawyer and fierce feminist Maryellen Symons, who currently sits on the WLF Executive, was also a member of FLAC at the time the Award of Excellence was conceived. When I asked Ms. Symons why FLAC felt the Award was needed, she explained that FLAC’s members wanted to fill a gap they saw in the kinds of lawyers and work being honoured by the OBA. “Although there were a lot of awards that were ‘gender neutral’,” she told me, “these awards mostly went to men. There was no award specifically honouring women, or women’s progress. Ours was one of the earliest awards recognizing women in that way, and certainly the first within the OBA.”

As anyone who struggles for women’s equality knows, feminism has always been a political act—just not yet a popular one. Even today, many people who are functionally feminist choose not to use the word.  I asked Ms. Dranoff if FLAC’s members had concerns about whether feminism, as an express, core legal mandate, would be accepted by the OBA community. Did they worry that an award specifically honouring feminists would be seen as too radical? “I don’t remember worrying about that,” she told me, explaining that FLAC had wide latitude to promote its aims, as well as surprisingly broad support in the OBA. “We were called the ‘Feminist Legal Analysis Section’, so we honoured feminists. And have done so for years.”

And have we ever. Since 1996, the WLF has honoured twelve feminist women for their extraordinary work in the promotion of women’s equality. Each has been, without doubt, a titan in her field.

The Award has gone to academic activists, including law professor Dr. Emily Carasco in 2009, and the late physicist Dr. Ursula Franklin in 2007. Among many other things, Dr. Carasco was a Human Rights Commissioner for the University of Windsor and a Commissioner for the Hearings on Apartheid for the Province of Ontario, and Dr. Franklin was a peace activist in the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, one of Canada’s earliest feminist organizations, and also led a class action against the University of Toronto on the basis that women on the faculty received lower pensions because they had historically  been paid less than their male counterparts. On the list also are the late writer Doris Anderson and journalist Michele Landsberg, who won the Award in 1997 and 2001, respectively. These women used their profound influence as writers—Ms. Anderson as the editor of Chatelaine, Ms. Landsberg as a columnist for the Toronto Star—to bring feminist issues to the forefront of Canadian media.

Leading woman lawyers have also been honoured. In 1998, it was Anne Derrick—a counsel in Nova Scotia to Dr. Henry Morgentaler in the fight for abortion access, and since appointed to the Provincial Court of Nova Scotia. In 2002, it went to Mary Eberts, one of the founders of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (“LEAF”) and now the Constitutional-Litigator-in-Residence for the University of Toronto Asper Centre. In 2014, it went to Kate Hughes, human rights lawyer and counsel to LEAF in the groundbreaking “female firefighter” discrimination case before the Supreme Court of Canada (fittingly, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé sat on the panel). In 2012, Mary Lou Fassel was honoured, then the Director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a non-profit organization that provides counselling, as well as family and immigration legal services, to survivors of domestic violence, and to which thousands of women a year turn for assistance.

As the name suggests, then, and with such a long line of feminist champions behind it, recipients of the Award of Excellence are truly in excellent company. But it is important to remember that feminism’s work is far from over, particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s America. The WLF’s Award of Excellence, with an explicitly feminist aim, must do its part to support the struggle for a broader, intersectional equality. 

In writing this article, I was fortunate to speak with Professor Brenda Cossman of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, who received the Award of Excellence in 2015. We talked about #LawNeedsFeminismBecause, a photo campaign started by the Feminist Collective of McGill Law that explores why law needs feminism. “I think it’s obvious that law needs feminism.” Professor Cossman told me. “The question is, what kind? And what kind of feminist work should we be recognizing? We need to broaden who we think the feminist heroes are.”

When I asked Professor Cossman what type of efforts should be honoured, she was ready: “There is so much work still to be done to promote women’s equality, across a broad range of issues and populations from violence against women, precarious and vulnerable work, Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women, sex workers, women refugees, trans women and other gender non-binary individuals, temporary foreign workers, to homelessness.” The list of women’s equality issues is a long one, and the better we understand inequality and its causes, the longer it grows.

I called the Award’s most recent recipient, Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director and General Counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association & Education Trust, and heard a similar view of feminism: “I have always interpreted feminism as being a fight for equality, a fight against discrimination and against systems that perpetuate discrimination and abuses. The fight for equality includes all groups and individuals who have been unjustly disenfranchised or harmed.” I asked Ms. Pillay whether she thought awards like the Award of Excellence were still relevant to the feminist struggle. “Recognizing efforts to protect and promote equality is an important tool in the arsenal of fighting for equality,” Ms. Pillay told me. “It dispels misperceptions that we’ve done everything we need to do.”

Done right, then, the giving of an award is itself a form of vigilance. First, it guards equality gains that have already been made. Ms. Dranoff, who, in her long career has lobbied against many attacks on legal advancement, warned me: “The progress that we’ve made will be taken away from us if we’re not paying attention. There are all kinds of insidious ways that our advances are chipped away at. We always have to pay attention to what’s going on.”

Awarding women’s equality work also brings awareness of new challenges to equality. When I spoke with Ms. Pillay, I heard about the efforts of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in responding to the changing landscape of equality rights: “In my view, in order to be sure that we don’t discriminate against vulnerable groups, we must be vigilant of the new and ongoing challenges that they face. Challenges to equality evolve and change,” she told me. “For example, the rights challenges faced by transgender people were not historically on the public radar in the way they are today.”

And, finally, when groups like the WLF draw attention to ongoing equality work, this reminds the community that the job is not done. Vigilance, in this sense, responds to apathy—to the mistaken and dangerous belief that feminism’s flag can now be laid down.

When I spoke with Justice L'Heureux-Dubé, I explained that I, along with many of the Award’s past recipients, believed that the work of feminists was far from finished. I said that continuing to honour women was vital within the ongoing effort. “You don’t have to convince me!” said Justice L'Heureux-Dubé. “I surely agree that the fight is not yet over.” When I responded that we at the WLF hoped she might help us in the struggle to convince others, she offered the following, characteristically elegant, call to action:

“Everyone (women included) has a right to pursue one’s goals and dreams: a question of human rights, a question of justice, right? Well, not quite so: for a long time, and after a very long march, we still cannot take equality for granted. The Women’s Lawyers Forum’s award is a way to recognize what has been achieved and to remind us of the further steps needed to reach full equality in all aspects of our lives. We are not there yet!”

During my telephone call with Ms. Symons, I asked her how she felt, being a member of the WLF Executive and reflecting on the long history of the Award of Excellence. “I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to carry the Award on,” she told me. In her view, the award still has a long road ahead of it. “Until the day when genuine equality is fully reached, including intersectional equality, we need to keep fighting the good fight.” In other words, and perhaps now more than ever, whether by fighting the fight or honouring the women who are, it’s time to roll up our sleeves.    

About the author

Daniella Murynka is an associate with Ricketts, Harris LLP.

Originally published by the OBA Women Lawyers Forum.

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