One hundred years ago, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, removing a huge barrier to equality by giving women the right to vote.
In 2020, the State Bar of Wisconsin will reach several of its own milestones. For the first time, a woman president will pass the gavel to another woman president. And when Cheryl Daniels becomes president-elect, the State Bar will attain the milestone of having all three top posts held by women. Moreover, it will be the first time the office of secretary is passed from one woman of color to another woman of color. Never before has the State Bar had more women or lawyers of color serving as officers of the organization.
So why does this matter? It matters because recognizing and celebrating “firsts” not only acknowledges individuals’ accomplishments but also provides motivation to reach the next milestone.
During my year as president, I’ve helped honor several Wisconsin lawyers who broke barriers. At our December Board Meeting, we honored Lavinia Goodell, the first woman lawyer in Wisconsin. She overcame several obstacles, including being denied the right to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1876 because the court did not want “to tempt women from the proper duties of their sex.” Goodell finally obtained the right to practice before the state’s highest court in 1879.
In February, I was honored to speak at a Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL) event, titled Recognizing the History of Wisconsin Black Lawyers. WAAL dedicated a booklet that highlights the many “firsts” of Black lawyers. It includes William T. Green, one of the first black graduates (1892) of the U.W. Law School. It also includes Mabel Watson Raimey, the first African-American woman to be admitted to the bar in Wisconsin, in 1927. These individuals not only broke down barriers for themselves but blazed a trail that made it easier for others to follow. Throughout my term, I have never forgotten that being a “first” is only important if you are paving the way for someone behind you to go even further.
I’ll end my final President’s Message by paraphrasing instructions I received from the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which helps maintain Wisconsin’s iconic hiking trail. This is good advice both for hiking and for life:
“The trail is for everyone. It is your responsibility to help maintain the trail and keep it free from barriers that would hinder you or others. If you see an obstacle in the path, remove it. If you cannot remove it, overcome it and then try to remove it from the other side. If you cannot remove a barrier by yourself, organize others to help to remove it so that others can walk the path after you.”
Being a “first” is only important if you are paving the way for someone behind you to go even further.