Frances Fish: Nova Scotia’s first woman lawyer

Frances Fish was the first woman lawyer in Nova Scotia and like most pioneers, she has a fascinating story.
She was born in Newcastle, N.B. in 1888 and according to scholar Barry Cahill (who wrote a bio of her for the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society), she was “an athletic, husky-voiced woman Amazon,” who during the years she studied at the University of New Brunswick played ice hockey, a sport open to few women in those days.
After also completing her Masters degree at an American university and teaching school for awhile, she took on a signifiant challenge. She applied and was accepted at Dalhousie University’s male-dominated law school. The university had been graduating women since 1885, but she was the first to study law.
Once there, she excelled at most of her classes and earned her LLB in 1918. One of the most unforgettable moments throughout her studies at Dalhousie happened during the Halifax Explosion. According to her family’s memories, Fish had been standing on the steps of the university’s library at the exact moment of the first blast. She was knocked unconscious and when she recovered, discovered the severed head of a victim was hanging on one of her legs.
After graduating, Fish did not remain long in Halifax, although for short time she was associated with two law firms. It seems she was disappointed that she hadn’t been offered a partnership. It is also believed her decision to leave may have had something to do with a broken engagement. At the time, women lawyers who married could not remain in practice.
She moved to Ottawa, where she obtained a post in the finance department and then went on to work in the legal department at an insurance company. In the late 1920s, she moved to Montreal, where she worked at a law firm headed by an associate of Lord Beaverbrook.
About 13 years later, Fish moved back to Newcastle, convinced an impressive career opportunity had opened for her. It was the town’s police magistrate’s position (today’s provincial court judge), but it went to well-connected Conservative lawyer. Now, in order to make a living practicing law, Fish realized she had to become a member of the New Brunswick Bar. This happened in February 1934, 20 years after becoming a law student.
She soon earned attention and admiration by successfully winning a case in the Supreme Court. In addition, she scored early successes as a defence counsel specializing in adultery (then still a crime in New Brunswick) and other sexual offences. She also became a lifelong advocate for the oppressed, the exploited and the disadvantaged, especially women and children.
In 1972, she was quoted as saying she never planned to retire and did practice until about a year before her death in 1975.
Her accomplishments weren’t always applauded. Biographer Barry Cahill notes how the Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal reported on her death. Its patronizing editorial focused on “her little eccentricities like getting up in the middle of the night to protect her flowers from frost,” but said little about her trail-blazing career.
Today, however, there’s a better understanding of her journey. Law students study her work and a portrait of Fish graces one of the walls at the Law Courts on Upper Water Street.
Editor’s Note: Shortly after Halifax Magazine published this story, Gayle MacLean, chair of HRM’s Commemorative Name Committee, emailed writer Dorothy Grant with news that plans are now in the works to commemorate Frances Fish. “I am pleased to let you know that the HRM Asset Naming Committee will be recommending Ms. Frances Fish for a street or building in Halifax,” she wrote. “Her name will be on the next recommendation report to Regional Council and I will notify you when it is approved officially.”  

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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