Between 1916 and 1980 a small number of women magistrates and judges adjudicated in courtrooms across the Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Often they worked in “family court,” through its historic incarnations including juvenile courts, women’s courts, and domestic relations tribunals. The first of these women, practicing between 1916 and 1935, included magistrates Emily Murphy and Alice Jamieson in Alberta, and judge Jean Ethel MacLachlan in Saskatchewan. None of these women held law degrees or membership within the legal profession, but all three had a “motherly outlook.” Murphy and Jamieson’s expertise was derived from their leading roles in influential women’s organizations and connections to the suffrage and dower campaigns. MacLachlan’s authority developed from her remunerated work with the Children’s Aid Society, and she received significant support from the Regina Local Council of Women. They worked within quasi-judicial courts, associated with volunteer-based social welfare initiatives, appended on to, rather than integrated into, existing established legal institutions.
During the 1930s, these Prairie women magistrates and judges lost their positions in the midst of economic and professional rearrangements. In the meanwhile, a vibrant women’s legal culture, assisted by developments in legal education and professionalism, emerged to provide the basis for a rebirth of women judges in the 1950s.
The next cohort of Prairie women judges was appointed to the bench beginning in 1957 with Nellie McNichol Sanders. In common with their early-twentieth century precursors, the media often positioned women judges as “role mothers” by highlighting their maternal, rather than professional, suitability for the courtroom even though all women judges held law degrees and were members of provincial law societies. Illustrative of continued connections with the volunteer sector, these women judges pursued human rights and advocated the re-dressing of inequitable laws and customs for children, women, and other vulnerable groups including Aboriginal persons. At the same time, women judges’ individual perspectives suggest discord with the egalitarian goals of the late 1960s and early 1970s women’s movement, and reveal that not all women judges were feminist actors.
In the final analysis, this dissertation uses an unconventional timeline to argue that Prairie women judges were part of a broader movement of change associated with continuities and changes in the women’s movement and in legal professionalism. Women judges worked within the prescriptions imposed by their times, contemporary legal codes, and society’s expectation of family courts. Their public work in the Prairie Provinces reveals that legal and social change was influenced by local, national, and international influences; change did not move uniformly from Ontario to the West.