Silver and Still Surging: 25 Years of NAWL

21 September 1999
September 21, 1999

With 25 years and thousands of women behind National Association of Women and the Law’s establishment and continued efforts, it is the perfect time to collectively reflect on NAWL’s work. Those of us who presently work with NAWL want to honour the women who came before us. Some of us have retired, while others are strongly active in the association in a wide range of NAWL’s activities. We have worked hard to achieve women’s legal equality. The task continues, but NAWL’s twenty-fifth anniversary is a landmark which gives us an opportunity to stand tall and marvel at the united effort of hundreds of women who strove and continue to strive for women’s legal equality across Canada.

How it all started

NAWL has its official origins in the 1974 Windsor Law School conference on Women and Law, but its genesis was in the larger women’s movement. The “founders” of the Association were looking for a place to work towards women’s equality as it was represented and achieved through the legal system. The majority of these initiators were law students, and a small number were women law professors and lawyers who were looking to combine their passions for feminism and law.

The 1970’s were a busy time for feminists establishing women’s organizations. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women brought to light many inequalities which existed between women and men and emphasised the political nature of the questions. Until the Royal Commission, these questions had not been publicly postulated, having been seen as issues within the private sphere.

“Status of Women provided excellent leadership at that time. They were the major driving force behind the women’s movement, a catalyst, and provided a source of ‘cross pollination’ for other women’s groups” (S.Greenberg Interview).      

The law school conference where NAWL began was inspired by the growing second wave of  feminism and influenced by a number of pertinent Supreme Court decisions whose implications directly affected the lives of women in Canada. A catalystic case was Murdoch v Murdoch, [1975] 1 S.C.R. 423, where an Alberta farm woman launched a court challenge against her estranged husband. Iris Murdoch challenged the notion of male ownership of family property and the devaluation of women’s work in the family. She launched the court challenge in 1971 when an Alberta court refused her title to any of the property. Then, in 1974, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld that decision, provoking farm wives to organise in protest and lobby for recognition of their labour. This opened the doors for the redefinition of family property and a re-evaluation of women’s unpaid work in the family.

In the same time period, Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell, a status Indian, challenged Section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act, by which she lost her Indian status upon marrying a non-Indian. At the time, status men who married non-Indian women did not lose their status, and their wives were declared status Indians. In October 1971, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Indian Act was discriminatory, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada.  The issue was finally resolved in 1985 with the passage of Bill C-31 when Indian women were allowed to marry non-Indians without losing their Indian status.

The abortion issue also moved into the legal arena in the early 1970’s. The abortion related charges against Dr. Henry Morgentaler engendered two decades of debate and court battles in Canada.  The outcome has been positive for women.

Out of these gendered legal cases, a resolution was passed at the Windsor conference to create a new legal group concerned with women and the law. A noon-hour meeting was arranged; the women in attendance pledged to set up a national network. They articulated their goals to be “to devote ourselves to the improvement of women’s status, using whatever professional talent we could, but also involving members of the community at all levels” (from “Saving our History” by S. Greenberg, 1977). From the perceived need and the initial meeting of women in Windsor, NAWL was born in philosophy and purpose.

The Women who Founded NAWL

The key founders of the association were Shirley Greenberg, Lynn Kay and Peggy Mason who were members of an already existent Women and the Law group at Ottawa University’s law school. Although they did not directly call for the creation of a National Association at the Windsor conference, their group had already been active in Ottawa, hosting legal seminars at the law school and providing comments for the news media on key issues concerning women’s equality such as Murdoch v. Murdoch. The Ottawa group was the “power house” for the first few years of NAWL.

It applied for and received a grant in the summer of 1976 to organize and host a conference in Ottawa. Women from across the country were brought together to organize the conference. “We were paid all summer long to plan the conference and we had a lot of fun. January was chosen for the conference because it was the best time of the year for law students.” Not only did the government provide a grant for NAWL’s 1977 conference, it also offered student subsidies to women from across the country.

The early years, the first successes…

The 1980s saw many “first” women appointed to the higher court levels:  Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube to the Quebec Court of Appeal; Justice Bertha Wilson to the Supreme Court of Canada on March 4,1982; Judge Rosalie Abella as Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board and Justice W. Kempo to the Tax Court of Canada in 1984; Roberta Jamieson, who nine years before that became the first native Indian woman in Canada to earn a law degree, was appointed Ontario’s Indian Commissioner in 1986; Justice Claire L’Heureux Dube in 1988 was the second woman judge appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada; Justice Rosa Boyko as the first First Nations woman to be federally appointed to the bench in Canada in 1994.

One amendment to the Charter, in 1981, was achieved through intensive lobbying on Parliament Hill. NAWL played an important role in negotiating the sex-equality guarantee in s. 28, which reads “notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons”. NAWL worked in coalition with other women’s groups as legal advisors and negotiators in getting this implemented into the Charter. A second success for the Association came with NAWL’s brief on Bill C-53 which included the removal of a husbands’ immunity in rape cases, the creation of “sexual assault”offences and the placement of those offences alongside the regular assault offences.

NAWL Conferences

NAWL conferences became a forum for feminists from all regions of Canada to meet and exchange ideas. They provided women with an opportunity to become sensitized to important issues, expand their knowledge on issues NAWL was already involved in and to become empowered by views and activities of colleagues. Resolutions were passed at the conferences that helped lead members in structuring lobbying and action between conferences.  The following are just a few instances of  NAWL’s major achievements through its Conferences:


1975 was International Women’s Year, and marked NAWL’s first biennial conference held in Winnipeg. The themes, policies and ideas presented at the conference came out of a rejuvenated feminist movement. The issues which grew out of consciousness-raising and discussion now moved into the action stage. The goal was to translate these ideas and aspirations into language that could be utilized to effect legal change. The Winnipeg conference saw the creation of a body of policy that would give form and direction to NAWL.


The second biennual conference was held in Ottawa on January 27- 30, 1977. The theme was human rights. Because of this conference, NAWL developed a constitution, by-laws, structures, policies, and elected their first National Steering Committee members. It focussed on human rights, equal pay for work of equal value, abortion, and rape. The first Jurisfemme newsletter was published in February of that year. It contained the first published version of NAWL’s resolutions and updated members on  NAWL’s lobbying activities, including the brief submitted on the Federal Human Rights Bill (C-25) supporting the passage of the bill with several amendments.


The third biennial conference was held in Calgary in 1979. The main topics of the conference were matrimonial property, insurance, pensions, estate planning, and proposed amendments to the Criminal Code dealing with sexual assault. NAWL, in association with the Status of Women Council and the Rape Crisis Centre groups worked together in the creation of a position paper on the sexual offences amendments. The focus of the conference was to devise strategies to pressure the federal and provincial governments for changes in legislation dealing with sexual offences and matrimonial property rights.


The fourth biennial conference was held in Halifax in February 1981. The conference theme was “The Cost of Being a Woman,” focussing on such issues as the emotional and physical costs of being a woman, parenting, ageing, and health care costs, the costs of being a woman in the legal profession, and income tax issues. Discussion also centred on women and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Gretchen Pohlkamp, who was involved in the organization of this conference and an NSC member from 1985-1989, says the 1980s were “an exciting time, with s. 28 and the Charter in the front and centre. It was hard not to be thinking about women’s equality issues. It was time to make some changes. There was strong support for the advancement of women’s equality issues and the kinds of legislation coming into force emphasized a positive time for women… At the core, women’s views wanted to be represented.” NAWL was attempting to voice women’s concerns, and while doing so, it was gaining a reputation of excellence for its legal research and sound legislative advice. The women involved in the Association became more organized, diversified their areas of expertise and worked hard at lobbying the government for legislative change. It was NAWL’s goal to be sought after by the government for their take on any legislation pertinent to women’s equality.  Gretchen Polkamp says, “NAWL did it. We were invited to consultations, one of 2 or 3 main groups to be called upon in the consideration of women’s equality.”


NAWL’s seventh biennial conference, held in Winnipeg in February, 1987, was an example of NAWL’s willingness to follow through with its resolutions. The theme of the conference was “Section 15 Equality in the Criminal Justice System and Workplace: Fact or Fantasy?” The conference was devoted to an examination of gender bias in the courts and in the legal profession. Members of the Manitoba Association of Women and the Law (MAWL) initially identified the need for NAWL to become active in this area in 1985. MAWL’s approach was to educate groups such as the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Judicial Centre about gender bias, and by 1989 they completed the first of two major efforts on gender inequality in the courts (Vol. 9 No. 3 1989, Jurisfemme). One of the resolutions that evolved from this conference was to “approach the newly created National Judicial Education Centre, the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice and appropriate judges’ associations to ensure that issues of sex bias and the impact of sex discrimination on women are integrated into all judicial education programmes.” (Resolution 1987, 33). As a result of the work by NAWL, the Canadian Bar Association at its annual meeting in August 1988 passed a resolution urging the government to create a special Task Force on Gender Equality in the legal system (Vol. 10 No. 1 1989, Jurisfemme). In 1989, NAWL passed another resolution calling for the creation of a national task force on gender equality (Resolution 1989, 7).


The tenth biennial conference’s theme was “Healing the Past, Forming the Future” and was held in Vancouver, B.C. in the winter of 1993. Topics included women and the constitutional crisis, new legislation affecting domestic workers, child custody, income security, new reproductive technologies, women as judges, and First Nation’s women and self-government. Significant new rulings such as Seaboyer, Lavallee, Mossop, and Butler were also addressed. In addition, delegates and attendees set in motion an aboriginal women’s caucus and a women of colour caucus. Darlene Jamieson, a NSC member from 1993 to 1997, says, “from 1993 to 1997, the survival of NAWL was at the forefront. It was a hard time because of government cutbacks. A lot of women’s organizations didn’t survive… Despite that, NAWL was taking on just as many media calls, legal issues, etc… The focus of the association was on the decreasing pot of funding and the increasing tackling of issues because of what was happening with other women’s organizations.”  NAWL was undergoing a process of restructuring and trying to make the association more diverse and inclusive at that time.

Surging into the new Millennium

When I asked my respondents whether they felt that NAWL was still relevant I received a unanimous YES!  Darlene Jamieson stated that “the aims of NAWL are still as relevant as they were in 1975. NAWL is attempting to tackle the same basic issues as they were back in the 1970s.” Gretchen Polkamp observed that  NAWL “has played a significant role in the development of the women’s movement. In government it has gained a lot of credibility, ensuring that legislation takes account of women’s role in society… We need to ensure that we keep moving forward… there is a need to be there to monitor and make sure that the government is taking into consideration women’s voices.” NAWL has been there to lobby for change, working independently, in coalition with other women’s groups and in consultation with the federal government to build new laws, to protect equality for women. Using the example of sexual assault legislation and the major changes it has gone through in the past 25 years, it is apparent that our present legal system has made tremendous advances, but only begrudgingly takes into consideration women’s reality or voices. Darlene spurs us to ask ourselves “what would have happened if there hadn’t been a voice for women?” 

For the future,  Margaret Denike, the present head of the National Steering Committee says, “The world would be a better place if NAWL kept doing what it has been doing… NAWL is a powerful organization and it is the best kept secret of this world. Its membership is so small but it makes a big impact on women’s lives.”

Women Making Law, Making Change

NAWL has helped achieve significant changes in the legal system over its history. Its success is largely due to the long hours put in by its volunteers, its ability to work in coalition with other organizations, and the fact that it has achieved a networking system, consisting of women lawyers, judges, academics, students, and activists willing to lend their time, knowledge and skills towards the legal advancement of women’s equality. No matter what issue is being addressed, someone will step forward to comment on behalf of NAWL for the news media or will join a working group on their area of expertise. The struggle for women’s legal equality should invoke our continued support and attention. As Anita Braha stated in her article “Where We’ve Come From and Where We’re Going”, “Ideally it is a goal (equality for women) which should not require any of our efforts because it should form an integral part of our society. But until that time, there is work to be done.” (Jurisfemme Vol. 11 No. 1 1990).

As NAWL moves into its 26th year we are proud to say that our organization continues to play a vital role on both the national and local scenes, providing feminist legal analysis and promoting equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy. By commenting on key issues of concern to women in Canadian society, such as violence against women, reproductive technologies, gender equality in the justice system, child custody and access, in addition to many other ongoing projects, NAWL is ensuring that women’s voices will be accounted for in legislative change.

Carolyn Rowe is a Masters student in Legal Studies at Carleton University. She researched NAWL’s history as a special project. 

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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