March is Women’s History Month, celebrating the vital role of women in American history. The integration of women into the legal profession has been a long time coming, with increasing numbers since I went to law school. Even so, this increase in women lawyers does not ensure gender equality or productive inclusion in the legal profession.
Susan R. Steingass, U.W. 1976, is a former Dane County circuit court judge and president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. She is also a senior lecture emerita of the U.W. Law School. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Law School.
The integration of women into the legal profession is relatively recent. In 1977, Shirley Abrahamson was the first woman appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Only seven years before, in 1970, Olga Bennett was the first woman judge elected in Wisconsin. In 1971, Vel Phillips was the first African-American woman judge. In my community, Moria Krueger was the first woman judge in Dane County in 1977. From 2003 to 2007, Peg Lautenschlager was the first woman Wisconsin attorney general.
Pamela Barker, the first woman president of the State Bar of Wisconsin, served in 1993-94. I was the second in 1998-99, followed by Patricia Ballman (2002-03), Michelle Behnke (also our first African-American president) (2004-05), Diane Diel (2008-09), Jill Kastner (2019-20), Kathy Brost (2020-21), and president-elect Cheryl Daniels (2021-22). That is eight women presidents in the State Bar’s 143-year history, with three women currently holding the top leadership positions.
During my presidency, in celebration of Wisconsin’s 150th anniversary as a state, the State Bar sponsored an event honoring Wisconsin’s first 150 women lawyers who were admitted to the bar between 1879 and 1943. As part of this event, we published a book capturing the stories of these pioneering women. Many of the 150 women attended the event, and I was surprised that many of them were still practicing in 1998.
Lavinia Goodell became Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer upon admission to the Rock County Bar in 1874 and later to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1879. Belle Case La Follette was the first woman to graduate with a law degree in Wisconsin in 1885. Today, more than 25,000 lawyers are admitted to practice in Wisconsin. Women represent 35 percent of the profession and about 50 percent of law school classes.
Progress, true, but as to gender equity and inclusion, many issues remain. Men predominately handle the business of law and hold equity partnerships. Take a look at the ABA’s 2020 report, “Left Out and Left Behind,” which reveals the challenges faced by women of color. Of the women surveyed, 70 percent report leaving the practice or thinking about doing so. An earlier ABA study found that many women in practice at least 20 years are leaving in the prime of their careers. The result? Fewer women lawyers harms the profession and the people we serve.
Yet, I am hopeful. Today, the State Bar Board of Governors is more diverse and younger than at any point in our history, with women in the majority. A statue of lawyer and civil rights leader Vel Phillips could soon be placed on the Wisconsin Capitol grounds. If so, it will be the first statue on the Capitol Square to honor a woman and a person of color. It’s about time.
But we have much to do. Let’s not return to the office after the pandemic to find women have disproportionately left this profession.
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 72 (March 2021).