voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Written by Erin Moores, Student at McGill Faculty of Law.

I thought that writing this article was going to be simple. My idea was to take stock of all the photos on the walls in the Faculty of Law at McGill and write a short piece on some of the women featured in those photos. I’d finish with a commentary about why it matters whose photos we see every day: because of the effect this can have on our idea of who and what makes a grand juriste,. If I had time, I would also research some interesting non-male McGill grads to suggest as replacements for some of the photos of men to, you know, even things out a bit.

But like many creative projects, this piece had its own life. It started making decisions that I didn’t feel I had much to do with. It was like what the Inuit tradition says about carving – that the shape that eventually emerges is already inside the stone, hidden there the whole time; the carver just reveals it, beginning to work without knowing what the shape will be. As soon as I began I saw that my initial idea was not necessary. There was a story that had to be told, and it was already there. It was there on our walls.

I started my research in the stairs that lead from the atrium down to the cafeteria. Of course, I recognized Professor Jukier right away, the lone woman among nine men in a photo from the 20th anniversary of the National Programme in 1984. The first photo on your right as you go down is of Isabel Dawson and Constance Short, two women who received their B.C.L. in 1936. The more I looked the more I found – in the Scott Seminar Room in Old Chancellor Day Hall, there is a photo featuring a dozen or so “Pioneer Women” of the Faculty. Outside the Moot Court is a photo of (presumably) all 26 female grads from the 1940’s and 50’s.

As I went through the other classrooms I found a few more, here and there. Of ten Supreme Court of Canada judges who are McGill grads, all pictured in the Moot Court, only one is female. In room 202 there are twenty-two frames on the walls, three of which feature women. Did you know Dionysia Zerbisias’ name? Sylviane Borenstein? Do you know the name of the first woman to be elected a member of the Quebec parliament? I won’t tell you – she’s an easy one to look up. Even has a Wikipedia entry. I will, however, tell you the year she was elected: 1961. 1961. 1961.

I already knew about the Women’s Corner, as I call it (to myself, of course), where there are only photos of women, all crammed into a little nook on the second floor hidden from most visitors to the faculty. In the nook there are the degrees of Florence Seymour Bell, who graduated from the Faculty in 1921. Wilhemina Holmes and Joan Gilchrist, who formed the first all-female law firm in Canada, are there too.

There are also the photos of Rosa Gualtieri and her niece Cheryl Rose Teresa Doran, who graduated from McGill in 1984 and in whose memory a scholarship was founded in 1989.

Stories of success. Stories of Firsts.

What I hadn’t noticed before was the other nook.

It’s on the second floor too, just on the other side of the building. I went there with my pen and paper, as I do. I looked at the photos. Frances Norich (memorial), I wrote. I looked at the second photo. Patricia Allen (memorial). 

I thought for a moment about the photo of Rosa Gualtieri and her niece in the Women’s Corner. I went back and looked at it again. Cheryl Rose Doran graduated in 1984; a scholarship in her memory established in 1989. In her photo she is young, in her twenties.

What happened to her?

Curious, I went back to the other side, to Frances Norich and Patricia Allen. For Frances, nothing was written; for Patricia, the following: That her friends wanted there to be a memorial in her name after she was tragically murdered in Ottawa. That they wanted the memorial to stand for the fact that her death should not be considered an isolated act of violence.

What happened to her?

I needed to know. I opened my computer; googled “Frances Norich.” Did you mean Frances Norwich? In any case, the name was too common; adding “McGill” and “law” and “lawyer” gave me nothing useful. I googled Cheryl Rose next; all that turned up was the McGill Law Faculty’s scholarships and award page, and the LinkedIn bios of people who’d won her award. I searched for them again, this time using “droit” and “avocate.” The internet could not tell me who those women were.

Then I searched Patricia Allen. As I typed the N at the end of her name, Google added the word “crossbow.”

Here is the story that is on our walls.

The picture on our wall is not the only memorial to Patricia Allen. In December 1992, the Women’s Urgent Action Committee in Ottawa unveiled a monument called Enclave, a memorial to all women murdered in the Ottawa-Carleton area. More than that, it was described as a monument to women who had fallen in the war that is violence against women.

The ultimate inspiration for it was a particularly bad year in Ottawa in 1991, a year that saw several brutal murders of women and of a 14-year-old girl in the city, culminating with the death of Patricia in November. Her estranged husband murdered her, in the middle of the day, on a downtown street. He shot her in the chest, as you’ve probably guessed by now, with a bolt from a crossbow.

Very sad, you might say, and really mean it. It is. She was only 31. Someone she knew well, someone she had likely loved very much at one time, killed her. The crossbow aspect of it makes the whole thing particularly gruesome and shocking (which shows us, in turn, how desensitized we have become to the idea of a person being attacked with a ‘regular’ weapon, say, a gun or a knife). But women are tragically murdered all the time. Why is this more important than focusing on the McGill grads on our walls who lived, who were Firsts, whose lives are part of what makes it possible for me, and other women, to study law today? Am I not just reinforcing the stereotype of women as victims, rather than focusing on the women who beat all the odds?

The reason I focus on this is because, as I said above, women are tragically murdered all the time.

Patricia’s friends so appropriately remind us why we must see her photo and remember her, her more than the others. Her death was not simply a tragic event. Her death was not an isolated incident. What does this mean? We could start answering that question by asking another: who killed Patricia Allen?

This is the point in the story where, if we’re not paying close attention, our legal education will fail us. If we don’t pay attention, we might fall into the trap of thinking that the cause of Patricia’s death was her husband shooting the bolt from the crossbow into her chest.

But the truth is something else.

You see, before Patricia was murdered, her lawyer contacted the police to report that the husband had been obsessively calling her and had even attempted to break into her home. The police replied that their hands were tied – Patricia’s husband’s behaviour did not at the time constitute a violation of the Criminal Code, including its provisions on criminal harassment – commonly known as stalking.

Now, let’s ask again. Who killed Patricia Allen?

The police? Her lawyer? The Legislator? Patricia herself, for not being more adamant about getting protection? We can go even farther than this. At the most general level, Patricia was killed by a society that simply does not do enough to stop gender-based violence.

There is so much we know about violence by men against women. Women are three times more likely than men to be killed by their spouses. When domestic violence occurs, the victims are overwhelmingly (83%) female. It gets worse when you remember that, on average, women self-report violent crime only one-third of the time. It gets even worse when you remember that rates of violence against women were on the decline until 2009; since then they have plateaued. And still worse when we remind ourselves that rates of self-reporting of violent crimes towards women have gone down.


Then, to get the full picture of violence against women, you can include harassment that does not include assault. Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas explains it all, in a recent commentary published in the Dallas Morning News that made its rounds on Facebook, entited Rape is all too normal:

“I use the term sexual intrusion to describe the range of unwanted sexual acts that women and girls experience — obscene phone calls, sexual taunting on the streets, sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, coercive sexual pressure in dating, sexual assault, and violence with a sexual theme. In public lectures on these issues, I tell audiences that I have completed an extensive scientific study on the subject and found that the percentage of women in the United States who have experienced sexual intrusion is exactly 100 percent. Women understand the dark humor; no study is necessary to describe something so routine.”

Why does this happen?

Again, others say it better than I could, with simplicity and clarity. I will just give you the explanation from the Canadian Women’s Foundation website:

“The roots of violence are founded in the belief that the needs, feelings, or beliefs of one person or group are more correct or more important than those of another person or group. This fundamental inequality creates a rationale for humiliation, intimidation, control, abuse—even murder. In our society, gender inequality is visible in many areas, including politics, religion, media, cultural norms, and the workplace. Both men and women receive many messages—both blatant and covert—that men are more important than women. In this context, it becomes easier for a man to believe that he has the right to be in charge and to control a woman, even if it takes violence. This is not only wrong, it’s against the law. There is no evidence that alcohol or mental illness causes men to be violent against women. Men who assault their partners rarely assault their friends, neighbours, bosses, or strangers.”

This is how it is. Women are not equal to men. This inequality is a form of violence, in and of itself. It’s not just abuse, assault, murder or rape, that is violent. And violence is not just in the systemic discrimination of women in the workplace through unequal pay for equal workIt’s not just in the way we dehumanize and objectify women in the media. Violence is not just in the fact that we deal with violence against women by teaching women how to avoid being victims, rather than teaching men how not to be aggressors . Violence is not just in the fact that men still hold the overwhelming majority of positions of power in political and economic decision-making, and that men virtually still make the rules for everyone.

Violence is in all those places, but it’s also everywhere else. It’s in our lies, Women just don’t want to be politicians, though! It’s there when we believe stereotypes, Women can’t drive. It’s there when we ask women questions we would not dare ask men, Do you know how to drive? Violence is in our sexist jokes, She’s such a slut! Just kidding. It’s in our excuses for the unwanted advances of our male friends on women, Come on, let it go, he’s a good guy/he was drunk/his girlfriend just dumped him! In our excuses for men’s defensiveness and anger when they are refused sex, Well, of course if you took your shirt off, he was going to think you’d sleep with him! It’s in the fact that men often do think women are going to sleep with them if they take their shirts off. Violence is in women’s voices when we tell each other it’s no big deal, that this is the way things are, that boys will be boys. Violence is in men’s voices when they say, I don’t rape women. I don’t kill women. I am not the problem.

We are the violence when we do these things. Moreover, we are the violence when we don’t resist. We have to challenge stereotypes each time they come up; we have to challenge our friends who use violent words – like the ones above – and violent actions. We have to see violence in all its guises. If we don’t, we just fall into the trap of thinking that once an aggressor is behind bars, the problem is solved; that ‘toughening up on crime’ will save us; that we can stop violence against women by teaching women how to stop violence against women. More responsibility falls on us because as law students we are not, in fact, like everyone else. We have and will have more power – and responsibility – than most to change the violent society in which we live, where women are tragically murdered all the time – on average once every six days in Canada – and where rape is all too normal. 

Another reason to resist violence, to tell and re-tell Patricia Allen’s story needs to be told, and re-told again, and why we should talk about her photo and not Marie Deschamps’, not Annie Macdonald Langstaff’s, it is because she was both the victim and the success A bright young female lawyer, and a murder victim. Hers is not a story of violence happening to someone else, somewhere else. As women in this faculty, we walk the same hallways that she did. We know that at one time, she was us. We would surely be unreasonable if we tried to deny that someday, we could be her.

I could find nothing online on the other women whose memorials appear on our walls. Now, 23 years after Patricia’s death, there is relatively little to find on her too. A few articles on violence against women, stalking, or crossbow deaths that mention her in passing. If not for Patricia’s photo, I might never have known her name. This is the final reason why Patricia’s photo is so important to us – she will not have a Wikipedia entry, she was not a First, she was not a Pioneer. But her photos isn’t important because she wasn’t a first. It’s important because she was not the last.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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