“In great crises, it is woman’s special lot to soften our misfortune.” MRS. ANNIE LANGSTAFF (1914)
A prophetic yearbook statement from Annie MacDonald Langstaff (1887-1975), who became the first woman to graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Law, in 1914. Little did she know then that she would become widely recognized for taking on the battle that would give women the right, in 1942, to study and practise law in the Province of Québec, even though she would never get to practise.
When the Montréal Bar recognized Annie’s accomplishments, in 2006 – more than 90 years after her application to write the Québec Bar’s qualifying exams was turned down – the “Médaille du Barreau” was accepted posthumously by her employer of 60 years, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg (formerly Jacobs, Couture and Fitch). In the absence of any known descendants, the firm asked one of its partners, former Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard, to accept the prize on her behalf.
While the credit for Annie’s accomplishments is hers, the Bar’s award recognized that one of the firm’s founding lawyers, Sam Jacobs, played a role in assisting Annie in her pursuit. It is with his help and encouragement that she entered the Faculty of Law at McGill University, in 1911. In addition, Jacobs argued her case before both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal.
Annie was born in 1887 in Alexandria, Glengarry County to Archibald and Clara MacDonald, both descendants of early Glengarry settlers from Scotland. This historic region of Eastern Ontario, north of Cornwall, was settled by many Scottish Highlanders after the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Even though tenant farmers of all faiths and ethnic origins were cleared to make room for the more profitable sheep-farming, other factors played a role, including anti-Catholic sentiment, famine and rising rents.
It would seem that Roman Catholicism played a strong role in Annie’s upbringing and that of her 5 younger siblings – John A. (a fallen WW I soldier), Phyllis, Mary Jane (Sister Mary Clara, Sisters of Providence of Vincent de St. Paul), Eileen, and Pearl. All 5 siblings were born in Prescott, where Archibald MacDonald served as an Excise Officer for almost two decades.
Upon graduating from Prescott High School, in 1903, Annie married Samuel Gilbert Langstaff who was listed in the 1901 Canada Census as a “Student” – living with his parents, William and Jemmetta, and his younger brother, William F., in Prescott. Two years later, when Annie was only 19 and living in Montreal, the couple separated. They had one child, Mary, whom Annie then raised with the help of her family. The 1911 Canada Census lists all the MacDonalds (except Annie and her brother, John A.) living in St-Hyacinthe, Québec with Mary Langstaff, age 5.
Annie worked as a stenographer and legal assistant for Samuel W. Jacobs, K.C., head of Jacobs, Hall, Couture and Fitch, and a well-respected lawyer and advocate of Jewish Rights. “Her dedication to the firm was legendary…her memory was superb…she did not have to search her records, but knew exactly where files were located and what their contents were.”
McGill’s Dean Walton confirmed Annie’s admission to McGill, in 1911, via Jacobs:
“There can be no objection to Mrs. Langstaff following lectures in law. We have, so far, had no woman candidate for the degree in law, and, until I have an opportunity of consulting my colleagues, I cannot say whether any objections would be made to this, but in any case it would be better for her to begin the lectures. They commence on Monday, October 2nd, at four o’clock.”
The dismissal of Annie’s petition to win the right to pass the Bar caused a public outcry in Montréal. Shortly after, in 1915, members of McGill’s faculty, students, and the Local Council of Women organized a mass protest. Annie spoke at a number of dinners: “It is not merely men who oppose the entrance of women into the learned profession”, she said. “There are many women who are so cowardly and lacking in true womanhood as to take the same attitude…The plain fact…is that so many women have to earn their living outside the house, if they are to have homes at all…all that is asked for women who desire to practise is that they should prove (their abilities) as men have to prove theirs…”
A 1983 McGill law student newsletter tells us that the “only justice Langstaff was to receive was poetic.” She became a successful aviatrix, flying on several important occasions in Montréal and leading the squadron that flew for the 1939 Montréal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Today, there are a number of reminders at McGill devoted to Annie’s passion for the study and practice of law. Each year, a series of professional development sessions – the Annie Macdonald Langstaff Workshops – takes place at McGill and, in 2015, the Nahum Gelber Law Library, at McGill, presented an exhibition to honour the memory of Annie Langstaff, BCL ’14 that included her original diploma, photographs, and grades’ transcripts. The McGill collection also includes a scrapbook, lovingly put together by Annie’s only child, Sister Mary Andrew, who passed away in 1987.