Using the writing skills she’d learned from Leah Cohen and the
emerging form of the case study, Professor Backhouse crafted her thesis
around the story of Nellie Armstrong, a New Brunswick mother who’d
left her abusive, philandering husband in January 1895 and sued unsuccessfully for custody of her four children.
It was the late 1970s and, in Canada, universities were hiring. The
dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, David Johnston (now
Governor General of Canada) declared “we need one of those feminists”
and offered Professor Backhouse a job.
But when she arrived in London, David Johnston had left for McGill.
She was the only female member in the faculty and it appeared no one
really wanted her, her non-academic feminist book or her case-study articles.
A few years in, she spoke to a group of female law students and told them
the job prospects for women in legal academia were “atrocious.” She was
criticized in the student paper for her comments, snubbed in meetings
and chided by a senior administrator. Pornography was slipped under
“I fought a pitched battle to exist as a feminist at Western. That took
a lot of energy. So I dove into history, which was calm and tranquil compared to my daily life,” recalls Professor Backhouse. She was awarded
tenure. She started a relationship with fellow law professor Bruce Feldthusen and they had two children in the mid-1980s. The kids slowed her
down, but not by much.
Every Wednesday at noon, Professor Backhouse and her feminist colleagues
would meet for Wednesday lunch at an on-campus restaurant to complain, share and plot. Then, in 1986, Western won an Employment Equity
Award from the Ontario Women’s Directorate. Professor Backhouse was
enraged: just a few years before, Professor Majury and another feminist
law professor had been let go, with the law faculty citing lack of funds,
and a year later, three white men were hired. So she published a casually
written but carefully researched article chronicling Western’s sexist employment history back to 1915.
After the school said her data was out of date, Professor Backhouse
and three other professors interviewed 35 female faculty members and in
late 1989 released the “Chilly Climate Report.” It quoted women talking
about being skipped over for promotions, hearing comments like, “What’s
a nice girl like you doing in the field like this?” and male faculty members
wearing ties with pigs – male chauvinist pigs – on them.
The report triggered an on-campus and media storm. The president of
Western invited the press to a university senate meeting and slammed the
report’s use of anonymous sources, called it McCarthyism and shoddy work.
she still had supporters. Some senior female administrators praised the
work and her partner and colleague, Professor Feldthusen, wrote an article
on the gender wars at Ontario law schools in 1990. Professor Backhouse
and her feminist colleagues published the book Breaking Anonymity in
1995, which outlined the whole Chilly Climate saga and reprinted the
articles involved. As well, she wrote Petticoats and two more books, one on
the history of the women’s movement and the other on the legal history
of racism, all of them award-winners.
Then, in 2000, Professor Feldthusen was named dean of the University
of Ottawa’s faculty of law, common law. The appointment included a job
for Professor Backhouse, and her world changed. “It was like night and
day. I went from a law school that hated feminists to a law school that
couldn’t say anything bad about feminism,” she recalls. “My work didn’t
change, but all of a sudden it was getting noticed.”
With her children now teenagers and her new employer offering sup-
port via talented graduate students to help with her research, Professor
Backhouse published prolifically. One of the books was The Heiress vs. The
Establishment, which she wrote with her sister Nancy, now a judge.
Professor Backhouse was invited to join the Law Society of Upper
Canada as a bencher and became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Her teaching won awards from the university and a President’s Award from
the Women and the Law Association of Ontario. In 2006 she became the
first, and still only, woman to receive the Ramon Hnatyshyn Award for
outstanding contribution to law or legal scholarship from the Canadian
Early on, Constance Backhouse seemed perfectly suited for work in aca-
demia. “She’s always been engaged and quick,” says Beth Atcheson, a
Toronto-based lawyer and activist who met her during the car-safety
advocacy days. But she’s also a hard-working perfectionist. Ms. Atcheson
recalls them living together in the 1970s in an apartment in Toronto. “It
was impeccably neat. Constance is very organized and this is an area
where she’s a task master.”
Meanwhile, when Nancy worked with her on their book, the younger
sister remembers that Constance was very much in charge. “She gave me
various tasks and told me when I should submit them to her. She did the
bulk of the work on it, for sure.”
When she presides over discipline hearings at the law society, Profes-
sor Backhouse brings her laptop and her impressive 100-words-a-minute
typing skills (she took a few typing courses one summer in Winnipeg). At
the end of the hearing, she has a full transcript of the proceeding for her
fellow benchers who can make short work of turning it into a decision.