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The legal pioneers who paved the way for women in law in Alberta

24.03.21

Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. … It shouldn't be that women are the exception.
The Late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
United States Supreme Court

International Women's Day was on March 8, 2021, and is an important day for recognizing the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women today and throughout history.

Some of the most innovative legal trailblazers in Alberta were women who overcame deeply rooted societal and institutional barriers in their pursuit of legal careers, and paved a path forward for generations of female lawyers to come.

In 1915, Lillian Ruby Clements became the first female lawyer to be called to the Alberta bar. She was also the first female student to graduate from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. Her admission to the bar was heavily scrutinized but not formally opposed. Clements pioneered a path for female law students for years to come, and we are still seeing her impact today. Between 2018 and 2020, the University Of Calgary Faculty Of Law's incoming class was 49-53% women.

It wasn't until 1954 that Calgary-born and University of Alberta alumna, Violet King Henry, became Canada's first black female lawyer.

In 1961, Ruple Ferguson became the first female lawyer in Alberta to receive the Queen's Counsel designation. As of 2019, only 16% of all Queen's Counsel designees were women.

The first female judge in Alberta was the Honourable Elizabeth A. McFadyen. Justice McFadyen was originally appointed to the District Court of Alberta (Edmonton) in 1976, and was subsequently appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta (Edmonton) in 1979, and later the Court of Appeal in 1993.

In 1989, Beverly McLachlin of Pincher Creek and University of Alberta alumna was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, and became the first female Chief Justice in 2000. Former Chief Justice McLachlin is revered as one of Canada's foremost legal minds, and has fought tirelessly to promote indigenous rights across the country.

The Honourable Mary M. Hetherington became the first woman to be appointed to the Alberta Court of Appeal in 1990. She had previously served on the District Court of Alberta (Calgary) from 1977-1978 and the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta (Calgary) from 1979-1985. Justice Hetherington sat on the Court of Appeal until 2012.

And finally, a reflection on historic women in the legal profession would not be complete without reference to the formidable "RBG". The late U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legacy of promoting female representation in the legal profession and her commitment to fighting for and protecting women's rights in the United States will endure for generations. RBG demonstrated how important and beneficial it is for women to be treated as equals to men, and fought well into her final days to ensure women around the world knew their value and saw their place at the table.

In the year 2021, we are still reminded of the inequalities facing women in the legal profession, and in the professional world generally. The partnerships of Canada's largest law firms are still predominantly male, with male lawyers continually out-earning their female counterparts. There is still substantial work to be done in order to see equal representation, but let us revel in the victories of the women who came before us, honour their legacies and accomplishments, and find inspiration in their work for the changes still to come.