The Feminist Who is Not A Feminist - A Review of "Claire L'Heureux-Dubé: A Life" by Constance Backhouse
“How can such a feminist, not be a feminist?”
This thought popped into my head more than once as I voraciously consumed Constance Backhouse’s biography of former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé called “Claire L’Heureux-Dubé: A Life”.
The book truly covers all of L’Heureux-Dubé's life, from her pre-birth family history to her post-retirement activities, including her complicated relationship with her father, the important role her mother played in her life, how she became known as the “Great Dissenter”, and the personal tragedies that befell her. Backhouse bookends the 545 paged biography (excluding 200 pages of endnotes) with L’Heureux-Dubé's reasons in the R. v. Ewanchuk decision and the public fallout and harsh personal criticism she endured as a result.
What stood out for me though, throughout reading this book, was a repeated refrain that L’Heureux-Dubé did not identify as a feminist. Professor Backhouse notes that L’Heureux-Dubé “was not someone who would ever claim membership in ‘women’s lib’” (p.228) and that “[t]he irony was that Claire L’Heureux-Dube rose to become a flag bearer for a movement to which she never belonged.”(p.229)
One excerpt is particularly revealing. When a group of women “invaded” a Quebec tavern that barred women (but made an exception for L’Heureux-Dubé when she lunched there with her colleagues when she was a practicing lawyer) and started “crying out loud that they had a right to sit in a tavern just as men did”, L’Heureux-Dubé observed:
They called themselves feminists in a place where men were drinking their pay while their wives were crying in our offices unable to pay their debts. To me, they were a bunch of crazy women, while we were fighting for justice where justice counted, in courts and before the legislature. The word feminist for me from thereon was associated with those crazy women and I never wanted to be part of it. (p.206)
This passage I think explains a lot. And I understand. While I have always identified with feminist ideals and causes, I have not always called myself a “feminist”. In my third year of undergrad, I enrolled in a feminist literary criticism course. One day when I was leaving the seminar room a fellow student started a conversation with me, saying: “I’m not sure if I like the word ‘feminist’ to be honest, I’m not sure if I would call myself that, perhaps there is a better word?” At the beginning of the next class another student stood up to explain to the whole class how she overheard “some students” (looking at me and my walking companion) say that they did not identify as feminists. She “could not believe that women in the year 2000 (!) thought this way” and she suggested that we had no place in that classroom or words to that effect. I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed, I felt enraged, but most importantly I thought – if THIS is what it means to be a feminist and what feminism stood for, I want no part of it. I started calling myself an “equalist” for the next few years before I came to my senses and embraced being a feminist again. The point of this story though is I never stopped acting like a feminist or advocating on behalf of women’s rights, I simply stopped labelling myself a feminist. The label didn’t fit. It just didn’t feel right to me. And while I am comfortable with and fully embrace this label now, I do not judge other women or men who do not call themselves feminists. Do they support gender equality? Do they advocate for women’s rights? That’s all I care about.
It was the critics (and supporters) that labelled L’Heureux-Dubé a feminist and because of this she built a reputation as one. However, what is clear from this book is that it is not a label that fits or feels right to her. This does not diminish her advances in the fight for women’s equality or her steps in paving the way for other women to gain access to the bench.
Another observation: In commenting on her appointment to the bench and promotion up the judicial ladder, L’Heureux-Dubé and other female judges featured in the book often commented that they were “just in the right place at the right time”. I always bristle a little bit when distinguished, competent, and intelligent women say this. And I hear it a lot. I attended a session by the OBA’s Women Lawyers Forum called “Pathways to Power: Getting More Women on the Bench”. Every woman judge on the panel stated this as well, that she “was just in the right place at the right time”. While I know this is likely an act of humility and no harm is meant, I believe such a comment can do a disservice to women seeking out judicial positions and may discourage women from applying to the bench at all. This makes it sound like a judicial appointment is all luck or serendipity. It could discourage women from readying themselves appropriately (taking the steps to build a career and legal experience that would attract a judicial appointment) and downplays the significant work that these women accomplished before being appointed. Yes, luck or serendipity may play a role, but I do not believe it is simply a case of “being in the right place, at the right time”.
While Backhouse also concludes that L’Heureux-Dubé was in “the right place at the right time”, she suggests that the feminist movement deserves some credit too. L’Heureux-Dubé: “was unattached to the burgeoning new feminist organizations. But when the politicians went looking, she was in the right place at the right time. Simply by being the most senior woman in private practice in Quebec, she was the obvious woman for the job. . . Her opportunity emerged because the women’s movement insisted on change.”(pp.228-229)
Overall, this was a book I could not put down once I started and finished it in under a week. I would be working at my office and I would count down the hours until I could go home and pick it up again. Perhaps it is just the legal geek in me who loves anything to do with law, but I believe it had more to do with the excellent story telling on the part of Backhouse. She drew you in to the life of L’Heureux-Dubé , but left her own impression on you, the reader, as well. Backhouse’s views were provided, but in a subtle way. She was always there guiding the reader and reminding her of a different interpretation as to the events that occurred, an outside observer’s perspective on very personal inside accounts. Aside from the fascinating feminist analysis Backhouse brings to L’Heureux-Dubé’s life and career, this book offers so much more to lawyers, law students, or anyone interested in Canadian legal history.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.