Our interactive timeline features UW Law women who have made history for their outstanding contributions to Wisconsin’s legal community and beyond.
Belle Case La Follette was the first woman to graduate from UW Law School. Though she never practiced law, La Follette held a prominent place in Wisconsin history—as a women’s suffrage activist, member of the women’s peace party, and co-founder (with husband Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette) of La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, now The Progressive. Read more about Belle La Follette and five other Law School trailblazers in the Spring 2013 issue of the Gargoyle.
Kate Hamilton Pier, Kate McIntosh’s mother, was the first woman in the U.S. appointed to serve in a judicial capacity, as commissioner of Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Pier’s daughters Kate, Caroline and Harriet also attended UW Law School. Mother Kate and her three daughters were four of only six women who received their degrees between 1887 and 1891. Kate Hamilton Pier was also the first woman to cast a vote in Fond du Lac County, according to the Merrill Herald. Read her 1925 obituary at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment granting national suffrage to women. “Bowing to what it now regarded as inevitable, the Wisconsin legislature ratified the amendment giving women the right to vote in federal elections; the Wisconsin constitution was not amended until 1934.”
—Wisconsin Historical Society: A Handbook for Using Historical Documents to Improve Students’ Thinking Skills in the Secondary Grades (PDF)
After graduating from UW Law School in 1921 as the only woman in her class, Dorothy Walker was elected district attorney of Columbia County. Twenty-three years old at the time, she is believed to be the first female D.A. in the nation. In 1974, she received the Distinguished Alumni Faculty Award from UW Law School Alumni Association, the first female to do so.
June Spearbraker Zwickey received her law degree in 1936. In a Spring 1988 Gargoyle essay (PDF), she described her early experiences in the Law School: “The first couple of years were somewhat uncomfortable. Four girls were conspicuous among 400 fellows. However, when it became apparent that we were all there to learn, that the girls were not there primarily to snare a husband, and that we did not fall over in a dead faint at the use of four-letter words, the atmosphere became more relaxed.”
Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to graduate from the Law School, received her law degree in 1951. She went on to build a career full of firsts. For example, she became the first woman and the first African American to serve in a statewide elected office, when in 1978 she was elected Secretary of State of Wisconsin. Read more about Vel Phillips and five other Law School trailblazers in the Spring 2013 of the Gargoyle.
Lawyer’s Wives of Wisconsin launched in 1954. The organization was the second of its kind in the nation, according to the state bar. It later changed its name to Legal Auxiliary of Wisconsin, and membership was open to past or present spouses of any past or present member of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
“In 1955, Catherine Cleary ’43 became the first woman named to the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance board. Later she became the first woman to serve on the boards of national firms like General Motors and AT&T. She also served as a board member for the Kohler Co., Kraft and other companies.” From Catherine Cleary’s obituary, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Marygold Melli ’50 became the first female professor of UW Law School. Melli went on to shape both pedagogy and policy in family law, particularly in the areas of child support and shared child custody. She later laid the groundwork for the Law School’s family law concentration, adding a wide range of courses to the original two-credit “domestic relations” offering. Read more about Marygold Melli and five other Law School trailblazers in the Spring 2013 issue of the Gargoyle, or hear in her own words through Professor Marygold Melli’s oral history project.
Professor Louise Trubek became the first director of the Center for Public Representation, a teaching clinic and public interest law firm that would later become the Economic Justice Institute. Upon her arrival to Madison in 1973, the local paper ran the article “New Woman Lawyer Arrives in Town.” Read about the Economic Justice Institute today.
Nancy and Daniel Bernstine, a married couple, were the first Hastie Fellows. The program, established to honor the memory of distinguished jurist and teacher William H. Hastie, is designed to prepare lawyers of color for a career in teaching law. In 2011, a number of Hastie Fellow alums gathered to celebrate the founding director James E. Jones, Jr. Learn more about the Hastie Fellowship Program.
Shirley Abrahamson, who received a doctorate of law in American legal history from the Law School and later served on the faculty, became the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Later, in 1996, she became the first female chief justice of the high court. Read more about Shirley Abrahamson and five other Law School trailblazers in the Spring 2013 issue of the Gargoyle.
After being appointed Solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labor, Professor Carin Clauss became the first female general counsel in a cabinet agency. She served in that capacity until joining the UW Law School faculty in 1981. Learn more about Professor Clauss in her own words with our oral history project.