Should professional women’s personal lives have anything to do with their careers? One law professor doesn’t have the answer to that question, but her words make clear that regardless of whether they “should”, they certainly do.
Osgoode Hall Law School professor Susan Drummond says she stands in solidarity with Manitoba judge Lori Douglas. Douglas decided last week to retire early after sexually explicit photos of her, put on the internet without her consent in 2003 by her now late husband, became the subject of an inquiry by the Canadian Judicial Council.
In an article originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press titled “I can never be a judge,” Professor Drummond revealed that she appears in a presumably compromising photograph that someone close to her has threatened to send to her current employer, Osgoode Hall. Following the outcome of Justice Douglas’ plight, Professor Drummond says she has realized that “as it stands”, because she too has a photo “out there”, she can never be a judge.
Drummond likens this knowledge to that of sexual assault complainants like those who are, she says, about to have their credibility attacked by Jian Ghomeshi‘s lawyers in his upcoming criminal proceedings. Just as she can never be a judge because of the scrutiny that could befall her personal life, she says many survivors of assault feel they can never be a complainant for the same reasons.
Further, Professor Drummond ties Justice Douglas’ experience to the recent appointment of Quebec corporate law litigator Suzanne Côté as newest justice to the Supreme Court of Canada, announced on November 27. Côté was independent counsel to the disciplinary committee that heard Justice Douglas’ case, where, as Drummond recounts, Côté insisted that the committee needed to see the graphic photos of Douglas in order to make its decision. After Douglas’ lawyer obtained an injunction preventing the committee from seeing the photos, Côté applied for Douglas’ medical records, including notes from her therapist, to be included in evidence. Several days later, Douglas offered to retire early to avoid a hearing on her case. Following several days after that was Côté’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
The appointment of Côté will bring the number of women Supreme Court justices back up to four out of nine, a fact applauded by opposition party members as much as by feminists. But Professor Drummond’s story reminds us that we are far from a world where we side with women who have been threatened, attacked, or harassed. For the important thing is not that Drummond and Douglas apparently agreed to the taking of compromising photos. It’s that they and their careers are not protected when their privacy and dignity is violated by others, without their consent, in the way that Douglas’ was and Drummond says hers is threatened to be. The photos of Douglas’ private life did not mysteriously “appear” on the internet. They were put there deliberately, by someone she presumably trusted when the photos were taken.
As Drummond makes clear, these women are victims that the law does not or will not protect. Sexual assault victims, dignity and privacy violated too, are not protected either from having their reputations and careers ruined by scrutiny into what they mistakenly thought was their “private” life. As long as women like Douglas can still lose their jobs because private photos of their consensual sexual activity were put on the internet without their consent; as long as women like Drummond can still know that certain prestigious, high-paying, powerful, male-dominated jobs will remain forever out of their reach because of the possibility that they will be judged and scrutinized over private photos put into the public sphere without their consent and used as threats against them; as long as women feel they must refrain from lodging formal sexual assault complaints because of how their personal and private lives will be publicly scrutinized, the personal does not remain personal at all, but still acutely political.
As a feminist, I like seeing another woman appointed to the Supreme Court too. I just wish it was a woman who, rather than participate in the same old savage attacks on the personal life of another woman victim of sexual harassment, had chosen instead to stand in solidarity with her as Drummond does. But Côté would likely argue that she was just doing what lawyers do: representing her client’s interest, impartially, objectively; indeed, the legal system makes it possible and acceptable for her to do as she did in Douglas’ case. Just like the lawyers who filed a hopeless and now-retracted $50 million civil lawsuit against CBC on behalf of Jian Ghomeshi, a move that law professor David Tanovich says is ethically and professionally questionable. While Côté’s work on Douglas’ case may not be professionally questionable, it still begs the question that Tanovich asks: is this – damage to the lives, careers, and reputations of women who are direct targets of intentional violations of their privacy – what we are going to accept as “business as usual”?