Women in Law: Six UW Trailblazers

By Alexander Gelfand

When Tammy Baldwin ’89 beat Republican rival Tommy Thompson ’66 in last November’s U.S. Senate race, her victory garnered national attention. And with good reason: she was both the first Wisconsin woman and the first openly gay person to gain entry to what has been described as the world’s greatest deliberative body, and the world’s most exclusive club.

Baldwin’s triumph also called to mind a long line of pioneering women associated with the University of Wisconsin Law School — a line that begins with the school’s first female graduate, Belle Case La Follette 1885; runs through Velvalea Phillips ’50, its first female African-American graduate, and Marygold Melli ’51, its first female tenured faculty member; and includes Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson ’62, the first woman ever to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and Dean Margaret Raymond, the first woman ever to hold that title.

In La Follette’s day, only a handful of women managed to earn law degrees — her fellow suffragette Belva A. Lockwood had to appeal personally to President Ulysses S. Grant just to get her diploma—and fewer still managed to practice. The ranks of women lawyers remained thin through the 1950s and 1960s, when, as Abrahamson recalls, “most people wouldn’t hire a woman, and they told you that.” But thanks to the passage of the civil rights laws and the enforcement of Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, women at last began entering the profession in significant numbers in the 1970s. Within a generation or two, something close to parity had been achieved.

The playing field is still not entirely level. As Dean Raymond points out, women lawyers remain less likely to make partner than their male counterparts, and statistics show that they enjoy fewer opportunities for advancement and lower earning potential in the aggregate. Nonetheless, the status of women in law has advanced radically over the past century or so. And given its history, the UW Law School will most likely remain at the forefront of change.

Belle Case La Follette

Belle Case La FolletteWhen Belle Case wed Robert La Follette in 1881, she pointedly omitted the word “obey” from her marriage vow. It was a hint of things to come: while “Fighting Bob” La Follette referred to his wife as his “wisest and best counselor,” Belle was also a major public figure in her own right.

Belle Case was born in 1859 in a log cabin in Summit, Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1879 — a time when, as Abrahamson notes, women often didn’t even finish high school. She clerked for her husband during his years as Dane County district attorney — when the Chief Justice of Wisconsin praised Bob for one of his briefs, he admitted that Belle had written it from “start to finish” — and at his urging enrolled in the law school in 1883. Though she never practiced, she was hardly idle: in addition to raising four children, Belle was Bob’s secretary during his three terms in Congress and his principal adviser during his three as governor, lectured on topics such as coeducation and women’s suffrage; and taught physical education to adults.

In 1909, when Bob was serving in the U.S. Senate, the two founded La Follette’s Weekly Magazine (now The Progressive). Belle edited the “Women and Education Department,” writing most of the articles herself; and she used her pulpit to lobby for women’s suffrage, and tocriticize the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson. Her stand on civil rights attracted hate mail, but La Follette continued to speak out against racial segregation and the disenfran chisement of women and African-Americans. A committed pacifist, she also helped found the Women’s Peace Party (now the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) and the National Council for the Prevention of War.

La Follette’s activism was deeply informed by her gender. “This business of being a woman is in many ways like being a member of a despised race,” she wrote, and she believed that “if women had a larger voice in the counseling of nations, there would be no war slogans, no dreams of empire which could lead to the great sacrifice of life, which woman alone knows the real value.”

When Bob died in 1925, Belle declined to fill his Senate seat, claiming “at no time in my life would I ever have chosen a public career for myself.” Ironically, her own convictions led her to do just that.

Vel Phillips

Vel PhillipsConviction, and the courage to act upon it, is something that Vel Phillips has never lacked. When the octogenarian says that she can still “kick butt,” she speaks as a woman whose past is littered with the remains of barriers she has handily destroyed.

Born on Milwaukee’s south side, Phillips was mesmerized by the conversations she overheard between her parents and James W. Dorsey, a family friend and prominent black attorney. “He had this beautiful voice, and whenever he entered the conversation, everyone would stop and listen,” Phillips says. “I thought he was wonderful.”

So wonderful that by the time she was eight years old, Phillips had her mind set on the law — and her mother was convinced that her career-minded daughter would never marry. As it turned out, Phillips and her husband Dale ’50 became the first husband-and-wife team admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee. That, of course, was after Vel became the first black woman to graduate from the Law School — a distinction she believes rightly belonged to the late Angie Brooks ’52, a Liberian student who was a year ahead of her but who deferred graduation to complete a master’s degree (Brooks, now deceased, became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Liberia, and the second to lead the United Nations General Assembly.)

As a result, Phillips kept quiet about her achievement until the Milwaukee Journal noted the historic nature of her run at the Common Council in 1956 — a run that made her the first woman, and the first African-American, to win election to that body since the city’s incorporation in 1846. “It took 110 years for them to get a woman or a black person,” says Phillips, who describes her victory as a “double whammy.”

After that, as Phillips says, “the firsts just began to pile up”: first African-American elected to the national committee of either major political party (DNC, 1958); first female judge in Milwaukee, and first African-American one in Wisconsin (Milwaukee’s Children’s Court, 1971); and first woman or African-American elected Wisconsin secretary of state (1978).

Phillips advocated for civil rights at both the state and national levels, and was on a first-name basis with several presidents. Yet her fifteen years on the Common Council remain most meaningful to her, perhaps because of what she accomplished, and perhaps because of what she overcame. In the 1960s, Phillips championed fair housing, participating in nonviolent protests and ultimately helping to pass the city’s Fair Housing Law. It wasn’t an easy time: she was arrested during a rally in 1967, and being the only black or female council member for more than a decade was “tough on both ends.”

“Every now and then they would forget my color,” Phillips says, “but they never forgot my gender.”

Marygold Melli

Marygold "Margo" Melli“When I graduated, none of the law firms would hire me,” Melli recalls. At the time, the dean of the Law School decided which students would have the privilege of being interviewed, but while Melli (née Shire) was always first or second in her class, she never made the list. When she confronted the dean, his reply neatly encapsulated the prospects for women lawyers in the 1950s: “Well, Ms. Shire, none of those law firms would hire you, so why should I waste their time?”

Fortunately for both Melli and the state of Wisconsin, the late Frank Remington hired her to assist him in revising the state’s criminal code. Before the decade was out, Melli would go on to help reform the state’s children’s code, revise its land-use controls, and reorganize its court system. In 1959, Melli became an assistant professor at the Law School, making her the first woman faculty member in the school’s history, and the only one until Shirley Abrahamson joined her as an associate professor in 1966. (Forty percent of the school’s tenured faculty are now women.) There was just one hitch: Melli and her husband, Joseph ’50, were trying to adopt a child, but the adoption agency would not place one in a home where the mother worked. So with the dean’s consent, Melli temporarily resigned, returning in 1961 after the agency’s policy had changed. She adopted three more children, working full time throughout.

A stint on the Board of Public Welfare (now Health and Human Services) in the mid-1960s piqued Melli’s interest in family law. But topics such as divorce and child custody were regarded as “second-class lawyering.” “For heavens sake, Margo,” the dean told her, “there’s no law there; you don’t want to teach that!”

Undaunted, Melli went on to develop a full curriculum in what she calls the “people-handling parts of the law.” In a sign of changing times, Melli served as associate dean of the Law School in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, she was chairing university task forces on gender equity and the status of women. In 1994, she received the first annual Belle Case La Follette Award from the Wisconsin Law Foundation. That same year, the Legal Association for Women awarded Shirley Abrahamson the first annual Marygold Melli Achievement Award for contributing to the interests of women in the law and helping to eradicate gender bias in the legal system.

Melli never liked seeing women lawyers singled out just for being women. So she takes considerable satisfaction in seeing the mix of men and women at the Law School today — a mix that means female students and faculty are no longer in danger of “sticking out like a sore thumb, which is what happened to me.”

Shirley Abrahamson

Shirley AbrahamsonLike Melli and Phillips, Shirley Abrahamson didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. “You don’t think of yourself as being the first or being a pioneer,” she says. “You just try to do a good job, and the rest takes care of itself.”

Yet a pioneer she was. In 1962, after earning her Doctor of Juridical Science, Abrahamson became the first woman hired by La Follette Sinykin, the Madison firm co-founded by former governor Philip La Follette, grandson of Belle Case La Follette. She stayed for fourteen years, making partner and leaving only when appointed a justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976 — with the exception of a brief hiatus that at least one colleague thought should have been longer.

“One of my law partners was quite angry with me for not taking more maternity leave,” says Abrahamson, who preferred to work while in the hospital and return to the office as quickly as possible after the birth of her son. Then again, it wasn’t as if the firm had any policies in place for such eventualities. “We just played it by ear,” she says.

Abrahamson remained the lone woman on the Supreme Court until 1993, becoming chief justice in 1996. (Today, four of the seven justices are women.) In 2004, she received the inaugural Dwight D. Opperman Award for Judicial Excellence from the American Judicature Society, which cited her efforts to expedite responses for child-related cases and to develop a more understandable system for self-representation. And for many years, she traveled extensively on behalf of the United States Information Agency, the United States Agency for International Development, andtthe International Human Rights Law Group, meeting with lawyers, judges, and women’s groups in places such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Russia.

“There’s a lot to be learned about other jurisdictions,” Abrahamson says — adding that her experiences abroad made her very thankful to have been born and bred in the United States, with all the liberties, rights, and privileges that entails.

Abrahamson will be in her eighties when her current term expires in 2019. But when asked about her future plans, the word retirement never passes her lips. “Don’t count me out” is all she’ll say.

Tammy Baldwin

“Don’t count me out.” That would have made a decent slogan for Tammy Baldwin’s hard-fought campaign against former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson ’66. Initially viewed as the underdog, Baldwin ultimately prevailed over a man who had won four statewide elections, helping to boost the proportion of female senators to an all-time high of 20 percent.

Baldwin has said that she didn’t run to make history; she ran to make a difference. Yet she seems to have a knack for doing both. Elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1986 — the same year she began law school — Baldwin practiced for three years before becoming the first openly gay woman elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. In 1998, she was the first Wisconsin woman and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to the House of Representatives, where she helped to pass expanded hate-crimes legislation, supported women’s rights initiatives such as the Equal Pay Act and the Violence Against Women Act, and sponsored a bill extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Baldwin also co-founded the LGBT Equality Caucus, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to improving health and well-being for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

During her senate campaign, Baldwin often talked about Bob La Follette and his fight to ensure that ordinary people had an equal voice in government at a time when powerful interests held too much sway. The lumber barons and railroad monopolies of La Follette’s day might no longer exist, but Baldwin believes that the need for a broad, progressive agenda is no less urgent. “We find ourselves in strangely similar times,” says the fifty-year-old Madison native, who evokes the state’s progressive history to spur contemporary Wisconsinites to action.

Baldwin also feels a strong connection to her female predecessors: women such as Phillips, Melli, Abrahamson — and the mother of them all, Belle Case La Follette. “In so many respects, I and women of my generation stand on their shoulders,” she says. Many glass ceilings had already been shattered by the time Baldwin entered politics. Dane County voters elected their first openly gay \ representative in the 1970s, and neither Baldwin’s gender nor her sexual orientation were issues during her senate campaign. As someone who benefited from the encouragement and example of mentors and role models, Baldwin hopes to do the same for those who follow her. “Frankly,” she says, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to play the same role for others who might otherwise have thought that there were limitations to their aspirations.”

Margaret Raymond

Dean Margaret Raymond was all too aware of the potential limitations on her career when she attended Columbia Law School in the early 1980s, an era when fewer than 5 percent of law school deans — and only a third of her classmates — were women. But she was by no means inclined to yield to them. While clerking for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court, for example, Raymond learned that the Columbia Alumni Association planned an event at a club in Washington, D.C., where women were not yet welcome. “They got two letters of protest: one was from me, and one was from Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” she recalls. “Needless to say, they moved the event.”

Much has changed since then. Twenty percent of law school deans are now women, and while female enrollment is down somewhat from its historic peak, it remains above 40 percent; at the UW Law School, for example, more than 39 percent of students are women, and just over 3 percent are also African-American.

Nonetheless, significant advancement to the highest echelons of the profession is challenging: recent surveys show that women in private firms are more likely to be staff attorneys than equity partners, and far less likely to receive credit for having at least $500,000 worth of business.

Some research traces the gap in partnership and earning potential to structural problems with the business model pursued by many large firms. As associate salaries have risen, so, too, has the number of required billable hours; new lawyers must spend more time at their desks, and only rainmakers are worthy of equity partnership — a situation that affects everyone, but especially women, who tend to be more concerned about issues of work-life balance.

The Law School tries to give the legal community a better understanding of such phenomena through the work of scholars such as legal anthropologist and professor Elizabeth Mertz, who has found evidence that different pedagogical approaches can cause gender imbalances in favor of either men or women in law school classrooms.

Raymond encourages firms to adopt policies that will create more opportunities for all lawyers, regardless of gender. And though there’s certainly still progress to be made, she remains sanguine about the prospects for women in law overall.

“I’m hesitant to say there are structures where women don’t succeed, because women succeed everywhere,” she says.

That’s a case any one of these women could make.