Gender and the Law Manual

gender & the law manual


The NAWL Charitable Trust for Research and Education has published an alternative orientation guide to law school: Gender and the Law Manual: An Introductory Handbook for Law Students.

The Manual was compiled by a working group of 8 law students from across Canada following a leadership summit held by NAWL in February 2011. It aims to provide feminist and equality seeking law students with hope, encouragement and inspiration as well as with some of the tools they may need to survive law school and legal practice. The Manual also aims to encourage feminist students and future lawyers to think critically about the law and take action to denounce inequality and injustice. It consists of manifestos, excerpts of articles and personal accounts written by 25 feminist students, professors, lawyers and activists.


Feminism 101: Why the F Word is Still Important
Law School Curriculum: What to Expect and How to Survive In Your Classes
Involvement or Alienation: Identity, Intersectionality and the Law School Experience
Judging, Lawyering, Teaching, and Theorizing: A Feminist Lens

In February 2011, the National Association of Women and the Law hosted a leadership summit for 21 feminist law students from across the country. The opening address began with these words: “Law school can be a really lonely place.”

Following the leadership summit, a group of eight participants from across the country embarked on updating a law school orientation manual that the NAWL Charitable Trust for Research and Education had created in the 1990s with the aim of reminding feminist first year law students that, in fact, you are not alone. There are feminists in law school everywhere — as well as in legal practice — and we are challenging ourselves to think about the law through a feminist and equality rights focused lens.

The law school machine tends to channel students into one specific path: get the best grades, take black letter law classes, learn ratios by rote, study the right six-part tests, and work at the “right big firm”. For some, it is easy to forget that there are other ways to think about the very real and important issues arising in your classes, and that there are people who are actually affected by the law that you are studying. For others, these things are impossible to forget! Because sexual assault, racism, criminalisation, institutionalized homophobia, poverty and lack of access to property are issues that affect our lives.

For many of you, the formal orientation and professionalization process of law school itself will be alienating. Law school is generally bad at making space for the experiences and lived realities of people in equality seeking groups.

Know that if you stray from that “one specific path” at law school, you will be just fine. Even if some of your professors appear to have no clue what you’re talking about when you raise your hand in class, frustrated by law’s contribution to what you understand to be substantive inequality — it is extremely likely that at least someone else in your class will be grateful that you raised your hand. Whatever experiences brought you to your faculty, you are an invaluable resource to your school and to your peers. Your feminist analysis, your life experience, your questions and your opinions matter. Your voice should be heard.

The following pages provide a series of articles and excerpts written by feminist academics, activists and lawyers and compiled by feminist law students. This manual does not attempt to provide insight into the full range of feminist issues that you will encounter as you study and practice law. It is not meant to be comprehensive. Instead, it is meant to spark your curiosity, to challenge you to think about alternative perspectives, and to ask the questions no one else may be asking. It is meant to remind you that you are not alone.

We hope that this collection of ideas brings you encouragement, hope and inspiration. Good luck!

Yours in solidarity,

Tamera Burnett, Julia Crabbe, Danielle Fostey, Madeleine Gorman, Nita Khare, Catherine Kim, Laure Prévost, Simone Samuels

Feminism 101: Why the F Word is Still Important

“Feminist” might be a description that you have avoided in the past or it may be one that you wear comfortably. Regardless, feminism is neither singular in its approach nor narrow in its scope. It has come to embrace many intersecting identities and perspectives, and bears little in common with images of the demanding, oversensitive and humourless woman simultaneously demonized and delegitimized by mainstream media and popular culture. At its core, it is a social movement aimed at combating sexism, but it also works to address racism, heterosexism, ableism, poverty and numerous other oppressive frameworks. It recognizes that these frameworks still exist, are systemically embedded in society, and that they have real and measurable negative impacts on the lives of equality seeking groups. Instead of representing one monolithic identity of “woman”, today there are many feminisms that arise from the different people claiming membership in the movement.

Feminism is also a tool. It is a tool that we can use to understand, challenge and dismantle systemic discrimination in our societies. Rather than taking rights away from men in order to give them to women, feminism strives to ensure that everyone has access to the rights and opportunities available to those who are in dominant positions in society. Feminism seeks to ensure that all people are treated as equally worthy of respect and dignity.

In this section, the articles presented address this broad definition of feminism and highlight why the movement and its goals are still important in today’s society, particularly for law students.

  1. Patricia Barkaskas—Where would I be without Feminism in Law School
  2. Pam Cross—Why we still need feminism in law school
  3. Jane Doe—Feminist Warning

Law School Curriculum: What to Expect and How to Survive In Your Classes

Many of you probably came to law school with the idea that studying law would better equip you to fight for social change and address inequalities. However, within the first few months you may have found yourself disappointed. You may have been dismayed at the scant course offerings in the areas of feminist legal theory, critical race theory, disability law and other social justice topics. On a micro level, you may have been unnerved that a feminist perspective was absent when discussing sexual assault in your criminal law class, that your common law property class glossed over the racism and classism inherent in the buying and selling of human chattel, or that most discussions of family law are mired in heterosexist norms. Perhaps you were surprised. Perhaps you were angered. Perhaps you felt that having these all too important voices and perspectives silenced in the curriculum meant that your anti-racist, social justice, feminist views were not welcomed in law school.

This section is intended to re-affirm your many perspectives and lived experiences as valid and important to your studies and to law school curriculum.

  1. Suzanne Bouclin—Some Guidelines for Feminist Legal Pedagogy
  2. Elizabeth Sheehy—A Feminist Take on Criminal Law
  3. Abigail Radis and Suzanne Jackson—Establishing a Student-Initiated Seminar at your Law Faculty: Suggestions and Challenges
  4. Interview with Julie Lassonde
  5. Natasha Bakht, Kim Brooks, Gillian Calder, Jennifer Koshan, Sonia Lawrence, Carissima Mathen and Debra Parkes—Counting Outsiders: A Critical Exploration of Outsider Course Enrollment in Canadian Legal Education

Involvement or Alienation: Identity, Intersectionality and the Law School Experience

“Imparting critical feminist theory in the law school classroom is about more than identifying, deconstructing, and hopefully obliterating the inconsistencies and injustices that pervade society and the law: it is also about understanding the hierarchies of privilege and power that raise race, class, and able-ist concerns.” 

— Rosemary Cairns-Way and Daphne Gilbert, “ Teaching Sexual Assault Law: The Education of Canadian Law Students” (2009/2010) 28:1 Canadian Woman Studies at page 70

When a discriminatory law or policy affects someone’s life, there can be an intersecting impact depending on the person’s sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, age, ethnicity, religion, as well as whether or not the person is living with a disability. Given the way in which systemic discrimination operates in society, often we find that several prohibited “grounds of discrimination” are triggered by one single discriminatory law or policy. Focusing on only one ground of discrimination does not, in many cases, give significant enough emphasis to other aspects of an equality seeking person’s identity. To address this, feminist legal scholars and lawyers have contributed to the advancement of “intersectionality” in equality jurisprudence. Critical race scholars explain “intersectional claims” as claims of discrimination based in the distinct stereotyping and historical treatment experienced under multiple enumerated and analogous grounds.

As you read cases in first year law school, you may be alarmed at the extent to which judges and decision-makers fail to understand the reality of intersectional oppression. This can be particularly frustrating when it is clear that an exclusive focus on one characteristic of a litigant’s identity (like disability) provides an inadequate analysis of the manner in which a law or policy is discriminatory (on intersecting grounds, for example, of disability, race, poverty and gender).

Critical race and disability theorists are writing increasingly about the complexity of disentangling interlocking patterns of discrimination. We were not able to include as many excerpts from this body of literature as we would have liked, and so we encourage you to read far beyond this manual. We encourage you to find and read anything by Patricia Williams, to read Peggy McIntosh’s now-famous paper on White Pivilege, to consult the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s discussion paper entitled “An Intersectional Approach to Discrimination”, and to check out LEAF’s Ontario Court of Appeal factum in Falkiner et al v The Queen.

  1. Mari Matsuda—When the First Quail Calls: Multiple Consciousness as Jurisprudential Method
  2. Patricia Monture—Now that the Door is Open: First Nations and the Law School Experience
  3. Dianne Pothier—Miles To Go: Some Personal Reflections on the Social Construction of Disability
  4. Kim Brooks and Debra Parkes—Queering Legal Education: A Project of Theoretical Discovery

Judging, Lawyering, Teaching, and Theorizing: A Feminist Lens

So far, this manual has explored some of the realities of being immersed in law school curriculum, and the different ways oppression and inequality can affect your law school experience. As the next generation of legal professionals, however, our experiences with and knowledge of oppression and inequality should not (and invariably do not) stop at the door of law school. Neither should our awareness or dedication to challenging the status quo in the legal profession cease when law school ends. Regardless of where you practice law, or if you decide to practice at all, it is up to you to decide how you will enact your feminist, social justice perspectives once you graduate. This next section will hopefully offer you some guidance on how you might use your legal education to make a positive impact in society. It reminds us that as lawyers we are responsible for more than the immediate consequences of our actions, and our practices should account for this. It asks you to imagine a world in which the Supreme Court of Canada makes decisions based on a robust understanding of substantive equality — and calls on you to act to help bring about such a world.

  1. Diana Majury—Introducing the Women’s Court of Canada
  2. Rosemary Cairns Way—Reconceptualizing Professional Responsibility: Incorporating Equality
  3. Susan Boyd—Spaces and Challenges: Feminism in Legal Academia
  4. Cynthia Peterson—Living Dangerously: Speaking Lesbian, Teaching Law
  5. Jennifer Llewellyn—Restorative Justice: Thinking Relationally about Justice


Our wishes for all women in law school. Lastly, we offer these wishes to all women entering law school: Aboriginal women, women of colour, women with disabilities, poor women, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women, immigrant and refugee women, Jewish women, Muslim women, older women, younger women: all women.

We wish you the strength to carry on each day, to go to classes, which might for some of you mean being in places far away from your support systems of family and friends. If you are a mother or co-parent, it might mean that you will be doing the extra work of feeding, clothing, and caring for and organizing the lives of your child(ren). If you are working one job, two jobs, three or more to just survive being in school, so that your bills are paid, and so that you can feed yourself, somehow you will have to get all the reading and assignments done for class the next day. If you live with disabilities, managing to get around a campus, a university, a society that is not accessible, and where your basic needs are unmet can be overwhelming. We wish you all the strength to carry on.

We wish you the confidence to speak your truth, to tell your stories, to share your lived experiences. We hope you will break the silence and make more space in classrooms for experiences that are marginalized and erased. We hope you will believe in yourself to write these experiences down, to analyze, critique, and envision cases with anti-racist, anti-colonial, feminist perspectives. Send your work to law reviews and law journals; get it published! Do not let institutions tell you that you cannot write or that what you have to write is not worthy or valuable about “law”.

We wish for you good health: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Take care of your bodies, minds, spirits, and hearts; they will be put to
the test during law school. We hope you lookto family, friends, partners, kindred allies and faculty, community members, and faith to get through those times we know will be tough on this journey. Find somewhere you can rant, rage, cry, laugh, vent, be still, and a place where you will be assured that it will all be okay. Find somewhere your emotions are validated and not minimized or patronized. 

Finally, we wish you the ability to imagine a time, a place, a practice in which women in the law do not experience these obstacles. We imagine the possibility of Aboriginal and racialized communities being represented meaningfully and with the power necessary in the creation of law schools, curriculum, pedagogy, and the process of learning the law, making laws, and changing the laws. We hope that you will think out of the boxes that so narrowly define legal reality into tests, standards, and thresholds. Be creative and passionate and dream big in your visioning of law school, the law, and society. Imagine the world you would want for your mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunties, partners, and communities. Make this change happen. You are brave and you can do it. You are doing it already!


The list of resources below is not exhaustive. It is being provided to give you some examples of organizations you might contact in the event you want to get involved in feminist organizing at your law school.

McGill University

  1. Women’s Law Caucus:
  2. Union for Gender Empowerment:
  3. SACOMSS (Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society):

University of Ottawa

  1. University of Ottawa Association of Women and the Law:
  2. LEAF University of Ottawa Campus Chapter:
  3. University of Ottawa Women’s Resource Centre
  4. University of Ottawa Feminist Legal Mentorship Network:

Queen’s University

  1. Feminist Law Student’s Association
  2. Queen’s Human Rights Office

University of Western Ontario

  1. Gender and the Law Association (GALA):

University of Victoria

  1. University of Victoria Association of Women and the Law:

University of British Columbia

  1. UBC Women’s Caucus:
  2. Centre for Feminist Legal Studies:

University of Alberta

  1. Women’s Law Forum:

University of Calgary

  1. Association of Women Lawyers
  2. Student Legal and Action Education Fund

University of Saskatchewan

  1. Women’s Law Club
  2. USSU Women’s Centre (also has list of links to other organizations)

University of Manitoba

  1. Feminist Legal Forum: flf.robsonhall@gmail. com

University of Toronto

  1. Women and the Law:
  2. Family Care Services

York University (Osgoode)

  1. Centre for Feminist Research
  2. Institute for Feminist Legal Studies:
  3. Women’s Caucus: womenscaucus@osgoode. 

University of Windsor

  1. Women and the Law University of Windsor:

University of New Brunswick

  1. Women in Law Society

Université de Moncton

  1. Fédération des étudiants et étudiantes du centre universitaire de Moncton: http://etudiants.
  2. Association des jeunes féministes de l’Université de Moncton:

Université de Laval

  1. Université féministe d’été
  2. Chaire Claire-Bonenfant: Femmes, Savoirs et Sociétés 
  3. Répertoire des chercheuses féministes à l’Université Laval

Université de Montréal

  1. Campus féministe de l’Université de Montréal

Université du Québec à Montréal

  1. Comité femmes de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante
  2. Centre des femmes de l’UQAM
  3. Réseau études féministes de l’UQAM: assistant_

Université de Sherbrooke

  1. Site international francophone sur le droit des femmes
  2. Table de concertation des groupes de femmes en Estrie

For all Quebec Universities:

  1. Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, section femmes (ASSE-femmes)

Dalhousie University

  1. Dal Women’s Centre
  2. Dal Association of Women and the Law