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Explore Shirley Abrahamson’s place in the history of women in Wisconsin’s legal profession.

When Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed Shirley Abrahamson the first woman justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, he said: “It is appalling that currently there are no women serving on any level in the state judicial system.” He hoped her appointment would inspire other women. It did. Explore Abrahamson’s place in Wisconsin’s transition from a state with no women lawyers to a state where, in 2022, women comprise 86% of supreme court justices.

1874

Lavinia Goodell becomes Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer

Goodell is admitted to the Rock County Circuit Court and becomes Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. That same year she becomes the first woman to try a case to a judge and, a few weeks later, to a jury. She prevails in both.

1879

Lavinia Goodell becomes the first woman admitted to the supreme court

In 1875, Goodell is denied admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court solely because of her gender. She drafts a law prohibiting gender discrimination in the practice of law, persuades the legislature and governor to enact it, and finally gains admission.

1880

Lavinia Goodell becomes the first woman to win an appeal in the supreme court

Lavinia Goodell becomes the first woman to win an appeal in the Wisconsin Supreme Court with Ingalls v. State, 48 Wis. 647 (1880)

1883

Kate Kane becomes the first woman to run for the supreme court

Kane, Wisconsin’s second woman lawyer, becomes the first woman to run for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Only men could participate in elections then. She wins three votes.

1885

Belle Case La Follette becomes the first woman to graduate from the UW Law School

La Follette says that it did not take much to convince her that she could handle law school without neglecting her baby and her husband, Dane County District Attorney Bob La Follette, who later became Wisconsin’s governor and senator.

1924

Dorothy Walker is first woman elected county district attorney

Walker is elected Columbia County district attorney at age 23. She is the first woman to hold this position in Wisconsin. The press reports that she is also the first female district attorney in the United States. During her four-year term, she prosecutes over 300 cases.

1927

Mabel Watson Raimey is Wisconsin’s first Black woman lawyer

Raimey is also the first Black woman known to have graduated from a law school in Wisconsin and the first Black woman to graduate from UW Madison.

1933

Shirley Schlanger (Abrahamson) is born

Schlanger is born in the Bronx, New York to Leo Schlanger and Ceil Sauerteig, Jewish immigrants from Poland.

1936

Verle E. Sells is appointed Wisconsin’s first female judge

Gov. Phil La Follette appoints Sells to the Florence County municipal court, making her Wisconsin’s first female judge. At her death in 1940, she is still Wisconsin’s only female judge.

1940

Shirley Schlanger decides to be a lawyer instead of president

Schlanger tells her parents that she wants to be a lawyer. They don’t discourage her because at least she is now being realistic. When she was four she insisted that she wanted to be a U.S. president.

1943

150 women have been admitted to the Wisconsin bar since 1874

1950

Shirley Schlanger graduates from high school

Schlanger graduates from Hunter College High School at age 16 and begins college at New York University.

1953

Shirley Schlanger graduates from NYU and marries Seymour Abrahamson

Schlanger, age 19, graduates from New York University, marries Seymour Abrahamson, and begins her legal education at Indiana University.

1956

Shirley Abrahamson is valedictorian of law school class

Abrahamson graduates valedictorian of her law school class and learns that Indianapolis firms will not employ a woman lawyer. She and her husband move to Madison where she pursues a doctorate in legal history and he works on a post doctorate in zoology.

1962

Of 224 lawyers admitted to the State Bar of Wisconsin this year, only four are women

1962

Shirley Abrahamson is the first woman lawyer hired by a private firm in Madison

Abrahamson earns her doctorate in American legal history, is admitted to the Wisconsin bar, and becomes the first woman lawyer hired by a private firm in Madison. Within a year, she becomes a named partner.

1965

First two women oppose each other in oral argument before the supreme court

Shirley Abrahamson and Assistant Attorney General Betty Brown become the first two women to oppose each other in an oral argument before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The case is State v. Strickland, 27 Wis. 2d 623, 135 N.W.2d 295.

1966

Shirley Abrahamson and Margo Melli become UW Law School’s first tenured female professors

The University of Wisconsin Law School offers Abrahamson a professorship in tax law. She agrees on the condition that she and Assistant Professor Margo Melli receive tenure.

1969

Olga Bennett becomes the first woman elected to the bench in Wisconsin

Bennett runs for election to the Vernon County bench on the spur of the moment. “I just didn’t think I’d win. I only ran because I thought the voters ought to have a choice.” She added, “I do feel a woman can deal out justice as well as a man.” She becomes Wisconsin’s sole woman judge on Jan. 1, 1970.    

1971

Vel Phillips is the first Black judge in Wisconsin

Phillips also becomes the first female judge in Milwaukee.

1975

Women comprise only 3% of the State Bar of Wisconsin

1976

Shirley Abrahamson becomes the first woman justice on the supreme court

Gov. Patrick Lucey appoints Abrahamson the first woman justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She is the only woman judge in Wisconsin at that time.  At her investiture, her law partner wonders if by 2076 a majority or even all the justices could be women.

1978

Martha Bablitch is elected the first woman judge on the new court of appeals

Bablitch is elected the first woman judge on the newly-created Wisconsin Court of Appeals. She is the top vote-getter in the primary election, and the youngest candidate. She handily defeats her opponent, family court commissioner William Giese.

1979

Shirley Abrahamson is the first woman elected to a full term on the supreme court

Abrahamson becomes the first woman in Wisconsin’s 131-year history to be elected to a full 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She defeats challenger Howard Boyle by a landslide, carrying 66% of the vote.

1989

Shirley Abrahamson wins second term on the supreme court

Abrahamson is reelected to a second 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She soundly defeats her challenger, court of appeals judge Ralph Adam Fine, by winning 55% of the vote

1989

Women lawyers comprise 17.5% of the State Bar of Wisconsin

1996

Women lawyers comprise 24% of the State Bar of Wisconsin

1996

Shirley Abrahamson becomes Wisconsin’s first woman chief justice

Abrahamson becomes the first woman chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  At the time, there are only six other female chief justices of state courts of last resort in the United States

1999

Shirley Abrahamson wins third term in a landslide

Abrahamson wins a third 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, defeating challenger Sharren Rose by a landslide, carrying all 72 counties with 63.5% of the vote.

2003

Peg Lautenschlager becomes first female attorney general

Lautenschlager becomes the first female attorney general in Wisconsin history. State Bar of Wisconsin President Patricia Ballman says: “I think it shows us times have changed. It’s not just window dressing anymore. There really are more equal opportunities.”

2005

Women lawyers comprise 29% of the State Bar of Wisconsin

2007

Women hold a majority of seats on the supreme court

With the election of Annette Ziegler, women for the first time hold a majority of the seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

2009

Shirley Abrahamson wins fourth term in a landslide

Abrahamson wins a fourth 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, defeating her challenger, Circuit Court Judge Randy Koschnick, in a landslide with 59% of the vote.

2013

Shirley Abrahamson iss the longest-serving supreme court justice

As the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, Shirley Abrahamson breaks Justice Orsamus Cole’s record of 36 years and 7 months.

2019

After a record 43 years on the supreme court, Shirley Abrahamson retires

2019

Women lawyers comprise 36% of the State Bar of Wisconsin

2019

Women justices hold 6 of the 7 seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court

2019

A woman has presided as supreme court chief justice for 23 consecutive years

2019

Women hold 26% of Wisconsin circuit court judgeships and 44% of the court of appeals judgeships

2021

Wisconsin Historical Society dedicates reading room to Shirley Abrahamson

Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Historical Society honor Abrahamson by renaming the library reading room as the “Wisconsin Historical Society Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Reading Room.”

Photo credits for timeline images of Shirley Abrahamson:  1962: Wisconsin Historical Society ID 149705;  1965: Wisconsin Historical Society ID 149694; 1976: Wisconsin Supreme Court; 2003: Madison.com; 2007: Wisconsin Supreme Court; 2019 (Shirley Abrahamson waving): Amber Arnold, Wisconsin State Journal; 2019 (Wisconsin Supreme Court justices): Wisconsin Supreme Court; other photos of Shirley Abrahamson: from Daniel N. Abrahamson.