A review of Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution by Linda Silver Dranoff

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution
by Linda Silver Dranoff
Second Story Press
April 2017, ISBN 978-1-77260-022-3, $24.95cad, 372 Pages

“I’ve been blessed to live in a time when positive change was possible,” writes Linda Silver Dranoff in Fairly Equal. Her new memoir traces the advancements in Canadian family law since the 1970s. As part of the “second wave” women’s movement, Ms Silver Dranoff has helped elevate Canadian women from second class citizenship to a position that is “fairly equal” to men – although there is still more to be done.

Silver Dranoff grew up in Toronto in the 1950s, a time when girls were expected to “find a man, fit into his life and get [her] status, satisfaction and financial support by caring for her husband and family.” Her parents, a salesman and a typist, had conventional expectations for her but always treated her with as much respect as they did her brothers. Mrs. Silver was atypical for the era in that she worked outside her home and earned more than her husband did. Having been raised by a mother who supported her household, Mr. Silver was proud of strong women. Growing up, Linda imagined that all wives and husbands were true partners in marriage.

A mediocre elementary school student, Linda was destined for a secretarial course, but asked to enter an academic high school like her elder brother. Midway through secondary school she excelled. In 1957, when she started studying history at the University of Toronto, there were few female professors or graduate students. In her graduation year, 1961, she married the son of friends and moved with him to New York.

There, she worked as a fundraiser, an administrative assistant, and as an advertising manager for a quarterly magazine. Threatened because she earned more than he did, her husband pressured her to quit the fundraising position because it required occasional weekend work. In 1967, she continued her advertising work from home with her infant daughter. On one occasion, a courier rushed over the galley proofs of some ads that needed her approval on a rush basis. His arrival coincided with the baby’s feeding, and Linda found herself at her desk holding the baby with one arm, moving the galleys with the other hand and talking on the phone wedged between her chin and shoulder, while the courier paced in the lobby.

When her daughter was seventeen months old, Linda moved back to Toronto after an uncontested divorce, and started attending Osgoode Hall Law School. She found a babysitter in her apartment building and put in long days attending class, working part-time, and studying. She had no social life.

Canada’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women reported in 1970, bringing to light many ways in which women suffered discrimination. Linda, then in her second year of law school, researched a paper (later published) and found that women law graduates faced many barriers. A third found it hard to land a first job; forty per cent of law firms openly admitted to discrimination against women applicants.

As an articling student (apprentice), Ms Silver Dranoff was sometimes asked to sit at the counsel table as “window dressing” for male clients who thought the presence of a woman lawyer would make their positions look reasonable. Her male boss assigned her to research and prepare a motion for him to present in court, but although she explained it to him, he didn’t grasp the legal argument. When he lost the motion, he fired her. Fortunately she found another lawyer with whom to article – a requirement in order to proceed to the Bar Admission Course and Examination. Her experiences taught her never again to be under anybody’s control, but to set up practice on her own. When she sought a bank loan she was asked to have her father co-sign the loan, something that male graduates were not asked to do.

Many of the cases that came her way involved divorce settlements and spousal support. Like all Canadian women, Silver Dranoff was shocked by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Murdoch case, 1973. Mrs. Murdoch, who had worked alongside her husband on their farm (above and beyond housework and child care) and had contributed a personal inheritance to the enterprise, she felt entitled to a share in the farm along with spousal support. The court found against her on the grounds that there had been no “common intention” that she would get a share.

Silver Dranoff joined women’s groups in pressuring governments for a more equitable family law. The Family Law Reform Act of 1978 was a compromise which did not bring in community property, but instead categorized marital assets into “family assets” and “non-family assets”, leaving much to the discretion of judges. Ms. Silver Dranoff had to try to make this new law work for her clients.  “Standing up for my clients showed me how to stand up for the rights of women,” she writes.

Two of Ms. Silver Dranoff’s cases drew public attention and added to her prestige. Both involved a wife’s entitlement to marital assets. Largely at her own expense, she took the Barbara Leatherdale case to the Supreme Court of Canada because she felt that such an appeal would be necessary if the Family Law Reform Act were to be changed. She asked the Court to interpret the FLRA broadly, recognizing the “mutuality of a marriage”, but the court decided that Mrs. Leathedale could receive only the share of the family investments that could be justified by her financial contribution from working outside the home. In her statement to the press, Linda pointed out that the decision failed to recognize a woman’s role in marriage as homemaker and child care provider. She received more acclaim when she won the Jarvis case, involving a 44 year old wife and mother who had been out of the paid work force for twenty-five years, yet was expected to be self-supporting after divorce. With Linda Silver Dranoff as her lawyer, Mrs. Jarvis appealed the lower court’s decision and won. Silver Dranoff brought in a forensic accountant to show that the husband’s bonuses and benefits should be considered income for purposes of claiming support, and also brought in the economist Monica Townson to establish just how little Mrs. Jarvis could earn, having given her best years to her husband and family.

Meanwhile, Ms Silver Dranoff’s columns in Chatelaine magazine and her three books on family law for laypersons added to her reputation. Increasingly she was sought out for speaking engagements and to serve on panels and boards. As part of the Justice Committee for Family Law Reform, a group that included high profile men and women in the media, law and politics, she worked for changes in the Family Law Reform Act.

When a Liberal government was elected in Ontario in 1985, it held public hearings on family law reform and a new act was passed in 1986. “Almost everything I had worked for was contained in the FLA of 1986,” writes Ms. Silver Dranoff. The struggle to sustain property sharing followed.

Throughout her career, Ms. Silver Dranoff has had the support of her family. In her personal life, for several years she had a relationship with an American man which ended when they couldn’t figure out how to live together yet maintain their careers in different countries. Twenty-seven years ago she married thee forensic accountant whom she had retained as an expert on many cases and they are now patriarch and matriarch of a blended, extended family.

In her concluding chapter, Linda Silver Dranoff pays tribute to the many other women who worked with her to bring about change, and encourages young women to be vigilant that they advances made by her generation are not taken from them. Universal accessible child care, full access to abortion, and help for women suffering violence are just several goals not yet achieved. Writing in the tone of a knowledgeable friend, she has shared her experiences and her experiences and achievements in a way that will inspire other women.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest novel is Grace and the Secret Vault. For more information visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.