Mabel French: British Columbia’s First Woman Lawyer
by Anthony DuMoulin
I would like to pass on a bit of B.C.’s legal history from 1911: the story of the determined fight of Mabel Penery French to gain the right, as a woman, to practise law in this province.
The following is excerpted from the book, Russell & DuMoulin, The First Century, 1889-1989, by Christine Mullins and Arthur E. Harvey, a copy of which I inherited from my late father, Theo DuMoulin. The book is a history of the Vancouver law firm Russell & DuMoulin (now Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP), and its predecessors, including the firm of Mabel French’s time, Russell, Russell & Hannington.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the British Columbia Bar was an entirely male preserve. This comfortable situation was upset in 1911 by a young woman, a friend of the Russell family from New Brunswick: Miss Mabel Penery French. Miss French, an only child, was born in 1881 in Saint John, New Brunswick, and graduated from the University of King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1902. Uncertain as to whether she should become a lawyer or a doctor, she managed to get a footing in a law office by learning shorthand, and became proficient in reporting trials. After a few months with the law firm, she entered King’s College Law School in Saint John, and secured a Bachelor of Civil Law degree in June 1905, the first woman to do so.
Joe Russell, among others, supported her 1906 application for admission to the profession in her home province, but the New Brunswick Benchers could not determine if she qualified as “a person” under the Legal Professions Act. Appealing to the Supreme Court of New Brunswick for a judgment, the court decided she was not.
Miss French was not to be denied. She purposely abstained from paying a number of bills. When the lawsuits came, she met them with the novel defence that, as she was not a person, she could not be sued for debt. The defence failed, but she accomplished her purpose of making one court effect a reductio ad absurdum of another’s judgment. This, and the storm of protest that had followed the Supreme Court’s judgment, forced the province’s hand. In 1907, the legislature passed an amendment allowing qualified women to be called to the Bar.
In 1910, Miss French decided she preferred a career in Vancouver. She found a place in the Russell firm and, in May 1911, wrote to the British Columbia Law Society requesting permission to write the exams for call and admission that June. The Law Society, which had not yet formally considered the question of allowing “a modern Blackstone in petticoats” to enter the profession, simply failed to reply.
Fearing for her chances in the June exams, Miss French sent a telegram to the Law Society: “Am I to understand that you refuse to accept my application for admission and call and to write at approaching examinations? Please wire directly at my expense, without delay.” In a letter, she expressed her surprise that the Law Society had not submitted her papers to the credentials committee as was its duty. Only in July, after an interview by the Benchers and a submission by Bob Hannington, was she told that it was the opinion of the Benchers that they had no power under the Legal Professions Act to admit ladies to the practice of law in this province.
The Benchers had not counted on the determination of Miss French, nor of Russell, Russell & Hannington, who stood solidly behind her. Filing mandamus proceedings, Joe Russell hoped that the Law Society would, as had its New Brunswick counterpart, absorb the cost of the legal undertakings—but the request was refused. The firm paid for the proceedings, losing in the lower court. Undeterred, French and Joe Russell took the case to the Court of Appeal, where the Benchers of the Law Society engaged L. G. McPhillips on their behalf. The case, in the Benchers’ opinion, was “apparently taken more out of a spirit of advertising rather than with any hope of success,” and would not “be a long affair.” The Benchers recorded that a good deal of Russell’s argument was “purely academic,” and even that was “largely very amateurish, showing clearly its origin.”
In the Court of Appeal, Russell contended that no decision could be found in England or in any of the Colonies forbidding women to practise, with the possible exception of New Brunswick, where the Supreme Court had decided that the word “person” employed in the statute did not include women. He called attention to the statutes of British Columbia, which provided that any barrister admitted in practice in any other province should be admitted to practise in British Columbia, on the passing of examinations. Nevertheless, the court followed the New Brunswick precedent, deciding against Miss French on the grounds that a woman was not a person under the Statute.
This was not, however, the end of the issue. If the law did not allow women to be admitted to the Bar, then the law could be changed. Bob Hannington was a friend of J. W. deB. and Evelyn Farris. Miss Farris—an elegant, intelligent, and determined woman—was President of the University Women’s Club and a strong advocate of women’s rights. While at bridge one night with Mr. and Mrs. Farris, Hannington told Evelyn Farris of the problem, and she set to work. The University Women’s Club established a committee to look into the matter, and Evelyn Farris sought the editorial support of the Vancouver Province and the Vancouver News-Advertiser. Moreover, one Saturday, when Attorney General Bill Bowser was in Vancouver to meet his clients, she paid him a visit. She was more successful than members of the firm had been.
Mrs. Farris told Bowser that the women of British Columbia would not put up with such nonsense. She would not be swayed by Bowser’s response that, with the legislature about to be prorogued, there was no time for an amendment to the Act. He buckled under her persistence, promising to bring in a Bill as a government measure if favoured by the Benchers, or a private member’s Bill, if not. He was as good as his word. Bill 45, “An Act to Remove the Disability of Women so far as relates to the Study and Practice of Law,” was given first reading on Saturday, February 24, 1912, and, with virtually unanimous support, second and third readings the following Monday.
Miss French wrote her exams and passed, but the Law Society was not finished. The Benchers attempted to raise the admission fee from $50 to $500. Again, Joe Russell intervened, this time successfully. Having paid the regular fee of $50, Miss French was called to the Bar on April 1, 1912.
By way of a postscript: on October 18, 1929, some 17 years later, a Supreme Court decision that women were not persons—and therefore not eligible for Senate appointments—was overturned by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Great Britain. Their lordships concluded that “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbaric than ours.... To those who ask why the word [person] should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not?”1
1 J. L. Granatstein et al., Twentieth Century Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1983), 209.
Anthony DuMoulin is a Senior Partner in the law firm DuMoulin & Boskovich, Barristers & Solicitors.
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This article was published in the June 2009 issue of BarTalk. © 2009 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.