Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé were the first women judges on the Supreme Court of Canada. Their 1980s judicial appointments delighted feminists and shocked the legal establishment. Polar opposites in background and temperament, the two faced many identical challenges. Constance Backhouse’s compelling narrative explores the sexist roadblocks both women faced in education, law practice, and in the courts. She profiles their different ways of coping, their landmark decisions for women’s rights, and their less stellar records on race. To explore the lives and careers of these two path-breaking women is to venture into a world of legal sexism from a past era. The question becomes, how much of that sexism has been relegated to the bins of history, and how much continues?
Backhouse depicts Wilson and L’Heureux-Dubé as the admirable pioneers they were, and as individuals fully capable of human frailty. Two Firsts is exactly the kind of well-researched, currently relevant, straightforward, non-memoir non-fiction that gives the genre such power. It’s not a biography of either woman, but a well-told story of the similar extraordinary circumstances that made both of them “firsts,” and how this big job played out in each of their lives and in the life of Canada.
This highly readable little book reminds us of the importance of gender diversity on the country’s highest court.
Two Firsts is excellent because of Backhouse's ability to both tell her subjects' life stories and analyze their actions within personal and societal frameworks.