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Equalizing divorce and promoting women's equality in Canadian law

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Scales of justice. Photo: houstondwiPhotos mp/Flickr

Linda Silver Dranoff became a lawyer about the same time that family law became a specialty, following the first federal Divorce Act. Her memoir, Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution, chronicles the changes since then, as well as her own role in shaping Canadian family law. Dranoff spent her career as lawyer, writer and activist, lobbying for better legislation through court cases and lobbying. She worked for fair, equitable compensation and support for women and children when marriages ended.

Just by entering law school, Dranoff was already breaking barriers. One of 14 women in her law class of 300, she was also divorced and a single mother. She had been an activist for women's rights since 1957, when she was among 20 women who demonstrated outside the University of Toronto's Hart House to protest being excluded from seeing Stephen Lewis debate U.S. Senator John Kennedy.

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women released its report during Dranoff's second year of undergrad school. She studied the recommendations carefully and, when a women's centre opened nearby, she offered to teach a free course on the history of women's legal issues.  

In law school, she conducted a survey of women lawyers, for a seminar law course. She found women's histories shouted discrimination but the women themselves denied it. A classmate's separate survey of law firms found that 40 per cent of the firms "openly and freely" admitted to discriminating against women candidates.

Dranoff's own challenges in finding a place to article convinced her she was better off "being my own boss and doing it my way."  As a one-person law firm, she practised every kind of law except criminal law. As a feminist, she also worked with the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women (OCSW), and participated in the founding of the National Association of Women and the Law, a network of women lawyers and law students.

Her clients brought her what amounted to a crash course in workplace gender discrimination. "Discrimination against women in pay, promotions, working conditions, and access to non-traditional jobs was systemic...There were almost no affordable and accessible public child-care supports. Women workers who became pregnant had no legal protection..."

Fledgling provincial family property laws were what sparked public outrage, though. The 1971 Irene Murdoch case in Alberta galvanized feminist groups nationwide. A hard-working ranch woman was denied any share of the family property because the deed was solely in her husband's name. Even as Murdoch fought all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, the provinces were already reviewing their laws.

In 1974, the Ontario Law Reform Commission proposed the principle that marriage is an economic partnership -- not a Head of Household relationship with a dependent -- that husband and wife be deemed co-owners of the matrimonial home, and that all property be divided equally in the event of death or divorce. Revolutionary as this principle seems, decades of discovery and fine tuning still lay ahead.      

Linda Silver Dranoff did everything in her considerable capacity to promote the family laws that recognize women's realities. She took one client's case to the Supreme Court on contingency because she believed that (at worst) an adverse court decision would trigger legislative change. She settled cases when possible, and litigated when necessary. She also wrote op-eds, gave broadcast interviews, worked out positions and lobbied with the Ontario Status of Women  Committee, presented briefs to legal and legislative bodies, and wrote regular detailed personal letters to politicians.

When at last the Ontario government adopted an equitable Family Law Act and a Custody Orders Enforcement Act in 1986, Linda Silver Dranoff received due recognition for her indefatigable efforts in promoting women's equality and autonomy. For example, Ontario Attorney-General Ian Scott wrote her to acknowledge "the truly significant contribution you have made to the form of the new law(s)."   Better, in 2000 Ontario adopted a non-adversarial approach to divorce, that protects children as well as women's interests.

Fairly Equal is an engaging book to read, written in a conversational style, with meticulous attention to detail. Dranoff seems to have worked on practically every legal issue affecting women, by herself or, often, alongside well-known legal, community or media women. Her book preserves their names and feats as well.

She also shares some details of her personal life: her first marriage, her longterm long-distance relationship that ultimately foundered, and her happy late marriage to a longtime colleague with a large family. Her parents and extended family helped her raise her daughter Beth while she attended law school. Once of the book's most moving moments depicts Dranoff's graduation from law school, when tiny Beth raced down the long aisle to embrace her mother, to the crowd's applause.    

Women need to keep reminding ourselves how far we have come since the 1950s, when in some provinces, women were still chattel, like children. Herstory too often disappears behind more official stories. Although sometimes the detail in this book can seem overwhelming, as if the reader is wading through old files, the information is always useful and the documentation is essential. And the blow-by-blow descriptions could serve as a manual for future lobbying.

Linda Silver Dranoff's engaging memoir shows a trailblazing feminist in action, carving gender equity into the law to protect women and to create a more caring and just society for all, especially children. Canada needs more such herstories, to document the astonishing progress the Second Wave of feminism made.     

This review appears in the Spring 2018 issues of Herizons Magazine. Used with permission.

Photo: houstondwiPhotos mp/Flickr

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