by Amanda Glasbeek. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009. 240pp. Cloth. $85.00. ISBN: 9780774817110. Paper $32.95. ISBN: 9780774817127.

Reviewed by Judith A. Baer, Department of Political Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4348. Email: j-baer [at] tamu.edu.


The Toronto Women’s Police Court was the product of a familiar combination of progressivism and feminism. The Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries included many prominent “social feminists” of the type studied by historian J. Stanley Lemons in THE WOMAN CITIZEN. They perceived no tension between their commitment to equal rights for women and either their acceptance of traditional gender roles or their conviction that protection of the weak from exploitation by the strong was an essential function of government. Reformers’ extensive observations of the workplace and the courts (though not the farm or the home) convinced progressive feminists (or feminist progressives?) that women and children were victims of such mistreatment. The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous declaration in MULLER V. OREGON that “As minors, though not to the same extent, [woman] has been looked upon by the courts as needing especial care that her rights be preserved” expressed, therefore, more an ideal than a reality. But the ruling gave force to this ideal by sustaining special labor legislation for women. The establishment of separate criminal courts for women, counterparts of the emerging juvenile courts, was a similar experiment in “maternal justice” (p.15.) The “mothers” were the women who staffed the courts; the “daughters,” the offenders and victims who came before it. Maternal feminism emphasized improvement and rehabilitation, but, as the court’s history showed, mothers can also be punitive and judgmental.

The Toronto court was the brainchild of the Toronto Local Council of Women (TLCW). Margaret Patterson, the physician and former missionary who became the court’s second presiding judge, had much in common with the American reformers who advocated special labor legislation. Patterson and her TLCW colleagues monitored the City’s police courts with “a steely determination to assess the criminal justice system from a woman’s point of view” (p. 1). Their discoveries were similar to what American activists like Florence Kelley and the Goldmark sisters found in the workplace: women were ill-treated by those with power over them. Not only did Toronto’s police courts provide admission-free entertainment for “foot-loose men” who wandered in off the street, but they also offered the unscrupulous a supply of potential victims for exploitation; TLCW members concluded that “for women, the criminal justice system was criminogenic…Something had to be done” (p.2). These activists did what their counterparts in most large American cities (but only one other Canadian city, Edmonton, Alberta) did during the Progressive Era: they [*281] persuaded the government to create a separate court for women.

Like what was then called “protective” labor legislation, women’s courts did not succeed in increasing the power and autonomy of women. Introduced into a sex-segregated working world, women’s labor laws frustrated women workers’ efforts to improve their status. Hours laws deprived women workers of overtime pay and night work; these limitations, combined with laws restricting women’s working conditions and even barring them from certain occupations, kept women from integrating male labor markets. The women’s courts lost public support after women got the vote (1917 in the province, a year later in the federal government) and feminism ran out of steam; their habit of imposing indeterminate sentences that often resulted in prolonged incarceration made their existence difficult to justify. The precipitating events that led to Patterson’s dismissal and her court’s abolition were two punitive rulings, but “a women’s movement that had ‘fizzled” was unable or, possibly, unwilling to help her” (p.45). The Toronto women’s court was one of several that were disbanded in the 1930s. FEMINIZED JUSTICE presents Amanda Glasbeek’s comprehensive and insightful explanation of how and why a path paved with good intentions became a dead end. The author uses the Toronto court as a microcosm through which she illuminates the dangers and limits of maternal justice and makes a valuable contribution to women’s history.

The 21st-century reader need not get far into the book to see trouble coming. A 1925 case involving a wife’s assault charges against her husband found Patterson commenting that “George had a certain amount of right in adopting summary measures when he found Mrs. A. kissing a man on their verandah” (p.44). Might maternal justice contain inherent contradictions? The court lost its jurisdiction over domestic relations cases in 1929, when a separate domestic relations court was established. This court’s supporters praised its “attitude of Rex pro the accused, and not Rex vs the accused” (p.41). Not until the resurgence of feminism in the late 20th century did the legal system begin treating batterers like the criminals they are.

The caseload of the Women’s Police Court did not give rise to feminist innovations to jurisprudence, such as revising the law of self-defense. A majority of the “daughters” who appeared in the court during its 20-year existence were charged with one of three offenses: public drunkenness, vagrancy, or theft. Prostitution-related offenses, the focus of much feminist concern, accounted for one-fifth. Recidivism for drunks, vagrants, thieves, and prostitutes was so frequent that the title of one chapter begins, “Up again, Jenny?” (p.118) White women’s involvement with black men acted as a persistent red flag for the court. Sentencing options included a choice between two correctional institutions: the Concord Industrial Farm for Women, essentially a prison, or the [*282] Mercer Reformatory, whose efforts at rehabilitation evinced “no definitive relationship between the offence and the sentence” (p.79.). Repeaters usually got short sentences at Concord, returning to the underclass from which they came until the next time, while first offenders or those under 35 served indeterminate sentences at the Mercer. Thus, women’s criminal justice was not so different from men’s.

Glasbeek insists that this court was “neither a failure, nor, even a paradox. To the contrary, I argue that the Toronto Women’s Court was an ideal reflection of the politics of the white, middle-class feminists of the TLCW” (p.13). Thus, the court became the site of “an activism that partially subverted male power” and “a living experiment in feminism” (pp.14, 18.) This organization regarded the court as its greatest accomplishment. Glasbeek’s curiosity about the opinions of the court’s clientele is frustrated by the dearth of any relevant evidence in the historical record. She admits that the positioning of the TLCW as “the best arbiters of female justice… often came at the direct expense of other women in the city” (p.19). The reader may suspect that, far from subverting male power, the TLCW acted as its enforcer. But Glassbeek’s book is an important addition to feminist colloquy as well as feminist inquiry.
Political scientists in the law and courts field will find it well worth reading.


Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. 1991. “The Difference Model: Enforcement and Reinforcement of Women’s Roles in the Law.” Judith R. Blau, Rose Laub Coser, and Norman Goodman, eds., SOCIAL ROLES AND SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF ROSE LAUB COSER, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press 53-71.

Lemons, J. Stanley. 1973. THE WOMAN CITIZEN: SOCIAL FEMINISM IN THE 1920’S. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

MULLER v. OREGON, 208 U.S. 412 (1908).

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Judith A. Baer.