Shirley’s parents, Leo Schlanger and Ceil Sauerteig, were Jewish immigrants from Poland. They ran a grocery store in New York and, for a time, in New Jersey.
Shirley’s sister Roz was an athlete. She played basketball and liked riding her bike around the city. Shirley, on the other hand, loved going to school and enjoyed reading in her spare time. Her mom said she was the only child who claimed to have homework in kindergarten.
Shirley’s favorite grade school teacher was Miss Hauptman. In her civics class, Hauptman stressed constitutional rights, even for minorities. Her class made a big impression on Shirley.
Immediately after her wedding, Shirley started law school at Indiana University where her husband Seymour was working on his Ph. D. There were only a few other women at the law school.
Seymour wanted to go to medical school, but he could not afford it. Instead, he went to graduate school at Indiana University to study with H.J. Muller, a Nobel Prize winner in radiation and genetics.
During law school, Shirley and Seymour lived in a small, one-room apartment with a Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall. Late at night Shirley and a classmate studied in the living area next to the Murphy bed where Seymour was sleeping.
A woman complained about a newspaper's decision to photograph Abrahamson at home rather than work. Abrahamson responded: “When I was growing up, women were warned that if we wanted a career we would have to give up a normal home life of marriage and children. This threat deterred many women from pursuing a career. I therefore have always thought it important that young women see ‘career-oriented women’ in a ‘home environment.’”
Historically, lawyers would address the all-male supreme court as “gentlemen.” After Abrahamson joined the court, they weren’t sure how to address her or the court. She told people, tongue in cheek, to call her Ms. Justice (pronounced MisJustice)!