Current State Bar officers inlude (from left): Secretary Kristen Hardy, Immediate Past President Kathy Brost, Board of Governors’ Chair Theresa McDowell, President Cheryl Daniels (center), Treasurer Elizabeth Reeths, and President-elect Margaret Hickey. Photo: Andy Manis
Michelle Behnke remembers attending, as a relatively new lawyer, the swearing-in ceremony for Pam Barker, the first woman elected president of the State Bar of Wisconsin in 1993.
“Pam came through the Young Lawyers Division,” Behnke noted. “As part of her speech, she was talking about people engaging and not necessarily sitting on the sidelines for 30 years until you were invited to the big kids table, so to speak.”
“She was a mentor, and she threw down that gauntlet. I stood there in complete awe. I decided right then to take her up on that. I got more involved with the
Young Lawyers Division and then I ran for the State Bar’s
Board of Governors. I was elected in 1997.”
Seven years later, in 2004, Behnke became president of the State Bar, the fourth woman to do so, and the first person of color to hold that position. In 2017, Behnke began a three-year term as treasurer for the American Bar Association (ABA).
For Behnke, a few words of encouragement from a trailblazer, Barker, ignited decades of leadership at the highest levels, in what was a male-dominated profession.
Others, like current State Bar president Cheryl Daniels, immediate past president Kathy Brost, and president-elect Margaret Hickey, followed similar leadership paths. Today, they are witness to an extraordinary milestone for women in State Bar leadership.
For the first time in the State Bar’s 143-year history, women hold all six State Bar officer positions – president, president-elect, immediate past president, secretary, treasurer, and chair of the State Bar’s 52-member Board of Governors.
Daniels, who served on the board alongside Behnke in her earlier days, is the third consecutive woman to serve as president. Hickey will be the fourth when she takes office in 2022, becoming the ninth woman in the State Bar’s history to serve in that role.
At the same time, in recent years, women have represented a majority on the State Bar’s Board of Governors, and that continues for the current board (2021-22). In short, this is a historic moment for women in State Bar leadership. But it did not happen overnight.
This article provides a glimpse of the State Bar’s concerted and deliberate efforts, both past and present, to increase participation of women in bar leadership, with perspectives from many of the women bar leaders who were involved in these efforts.
Michelle Behnke was the fourth woman elected president of the State Bar (2004-05) and the first African-American lawyer to serve in that position. She went on to become treasurer of the American Bar Association (2017-20). Photo: Andy Manis
The 1985 Study: Participation of Women in the Bar
Revisiting prior decades and the work of many leaders is necessary to understand how the State Bar has reached this point, in terms of participation of women in the bar.
The Wisconsin Commission on the Status of Women began publishing reports on the status of legal rights for women in the 1960s, after President John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961.
In 1975, Gov. Patrick Lucey – who appointed Shirley Abrahamson as the first woman on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976 – charged the commission with continuing “to bring us closer to full rights for women, in life and on the law books.”
In 1984, Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge William Eich presented a paper on “sexual stereotyping” at the Wisconsin Judicial Conference. In 1985, Justice Nathan Heffernan spoke to the Dane County Legal Association for Women about gender bias.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is communications director for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
The same year, the Dane County Legal Association for Women requested that the State Bar form a committee to “identify barriers, real or perceived, to the participation of women in state and local bar activities and to their full integration into the profession generally” and to make recommendations “to help remove barriers and remedy” the problems identified.1 State Bar President Donald Heaney created the committee.
It was called the Special Committee for the Participation of Women in the Bar, and Christy Brooks served as chair. The committee included about 30 women attorneys, including minority attorneys, from various districts across the state.
“When you look at the roster of all the women who were involved, it includes all these interesting, great, and diverse women – and some men – throughout the state who really helped on these issues,” said Brooks, who worked at von Briesen & Roper her entire career and still serves the firm as of counsel. “I was all of seven years out of law school when Linda Balisle, a member of the State Bar’s board, recommended me to serve as chair.”
Balisle was the first woman to serve as chair of the State Bar’s Board of Governors in 1989. “When other women speak up for women, those things happen,” Brooks said.
“There was momentum for this committee, and thankfully there were plenty of men leaders like Judge Eich and Justice Nathan Heffernan. They had recognized this issue long ago and said it was time for Wisconsin to get moving.”
The committee conducted a research survey, the results of which showed “the beginning of full integration of women into Wisconsin practice.” The survey showed that men and women were equally represented in State Bar sections and committees.
“Greater involvement by diverse groups does not diminish other people,” said Michelle Behnke. “It just enriches the work that we are doing.”
However, the survey found that “men appear to volunteer more frequently, whereas women appear to be referred.” That is, men actively sought bar leadership positions in sections and committees, while women more frequently waited for an invitation.
The survey revealed a host of disparities between men and women lawyers, including unequal pay, gender-based bias, and “documentation that judges and attorneys are perceived as treating women and minorities disadvantageously.”2
Recommendations included a “statewide task force to oversee further study and action related to the impact of disparate treatment of women attorneys and litigants.”3
The report noted that, while women were participating more frequently than anticipated and holding more leadership positions than expected, “increased participation by women in all levels of State Bar activities and programs should be encouraged.”4
When that report was released, there were five women lawyers on the State Bar’s 41-member Board of Governors, and no officers were women. That was 34 years ago.
“There are many of us that bemoan the fact that after 30 to 40 years, we still hear some anecdotal evidence that many of the old things still remain unchanged,” Brooks said.
“That’s disheartening. But having said that, to see the kind of leadership we have among judges and among bar participation in leadership today is very encouraging.”
“I recognized the significance of being the first woman elected as president of the State Bar in 1993,” said Pamela Barker. “Everyone understood that it was a turning point for women to witness the opportunity.”
1993: The First Woman President
In 1989, the State Bar created the Wisconsin Equal Justice Task Force to carry on the work first started by the Special Committee for the Participation of Women in the Bar. Susan Steingass – elected president of the State Bar in 1998 – was the chair.
A task force subgroup studied gender discrimination in the legal profession and held public hearings, conducted surveys, and held listening sessions. The final report, full of anecdotes, concluded that “a significant number of attorneys and judges – male and female – still see gender discrimination affecting attorneys and their clients.”
Thus, this was the environment for women lawyers in Wisconsin three decades ago. A concerted effort to integrate more women into State Bar leadership positions began in the 1980s as more women entered the legal profession. Women made up about 25 percent of law school students in the mid-1970s and 50 percent by 1992.5
“Really, when you get 60 or 70 women across the state networking regularly on these issues, it increases participation of women in the bar because they are all working together,” Brooks said. “It was our collective voices that helped start us on this path.”
As noted, Barker became State Bar president in 1993, the first woman to do so. “As a young lawyer, there were several events that gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door,” said Barker, an environmental lawyer now practicing in St. Louis.
“It started when I became president of the Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association in 1987. That was extremely helpful because I was able to meet a lot of different people.
“That really opened doors for me in getting to know people. For so many women, it’s about getting the opportunity,” Barker said. “Because if you give us the opportunity, we’ll show up, we’ll be responsive, we’ll be dedicated. And we’ll get things done.”
“If you give us the opportunity, we’ll show up, we’ll be responsive, we’ll be dedicated. And we’ll get things done.”
– Pam Barker
Four more women served as president in the two decades that followed – Steingass (1998-99), Patricia Ballman (2002-03), Behnke (2004-05), and Diane Diel (2008-09).
“I recognized the significance of being the first woman president since the State Bar was founded 115 years earlier,” Barker said. “Everyone understood that this was a big milestone and a turning point that allowed women to witness the opportunity. Just look at the enormously qualified women Bar presidents who have come after me.”
Barker’s election was also a special moment for Diane Diel, elected State Bar president in 2008. Diel, along with longtime State Bar Board member Mary Lynn Donohue, were members of the Special Committee for the Participation of Women in the Bar.
“I believe it was Margadette Demet who invited me to take on the challenge of being State Bar secretary early in my career,” Diel said. “She had been involved with the Association for Women Lawyers in Milwaukee when I started out as a lawyer.
“I was relatively outspoken on the Strategic Planning Committee,” she said. “That may have been part of why I was nominated to run as president. But I’ll agree that women are generally less inclined to volunteer unless asked to do so. Women historically have not had the same natural inkling to put themselves forward as our male colleagues.”
Diel said the profession is strengthened when representative of the diversity of all of its members. “We do things better and understand the world in which our decisions will be implemented better when there’s a bigger cross-section making decisions,” she said.
Increasing diversity was a priority for Behnke during her presidential term. She helped lay a foundation for what is now the State Bar’s Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee.
“If an organization wants to diversify its leadership, it has to go look in all the places and recruit in a myriad of ways in order to actually bring people along,” said Behnke, who now chairs the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
“For me and for a lot of women, it often comes from somebody recognizing your work in a particular area or making a suggestion or asking.”
Another way to get more people involved, says current State Bar Secretary Kristen Hardy, is to create pathways to bar leadership for diverse groups.
“To see the kind of leadership we have among judges and among bar participation in leadership today is very encouraging.” — Christy Brooks, chair of the Special Committee for the Participation of Women in the Bar in 1985.
Hardy is a former president of the
Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL), which has helped create a pipeline for its members to get involved in State Bar leadership activities through the State Bar’s Building Bridges program.
The program created nonvoting liaison seats on the State Bar’s Board of Governors to engage representatives of affinity bar associations such as WAAL.
“Five or six years ago, we started making a concerted effort to encourage more attorney representation through the Building Bridges liaison position,” said Hardy, who is an assistant general counsel at Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee.
“We thought that if more people were involved, the State Bar gets to know more attorneys from WAAL and then also our Black attorneys have more of an interest. When they end their term, the hope is that they’ll run for a voting position on the board.”
“There’s still a lot that needs to be done,” Hardy said. “But I have to credit WAAL because WAAL made that concerted effort and said we want more representation, we want a seat at the table and to have opportunities to become officers of the State Bar.”
“We have to remember that sometimes we do need to ask. We need to reach out to people, let them know about opportunities, and ask them to get involved.”
– Jill Kastner
WAAL’s efforts are working. A majority of State Bar board members are women – including 10 of the 12 members from District 2 (Milwaukee) – and the board has seen a gradual uptick among people of color who are running for board seats.
The State Bar has also created its own leadership pipeline through the
G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy and the annual State Bar of Wisconsin Leadership Summit. The academy provides essential leadership skills, strategies, and resources necessary to empower lawyers to become effective leaders in their careers, their local and state bar associations, and their local communities and organizations.
The annual summit hosts 24 young lawyers who are nominated by State Bar leaders. Participants display leadership capabilities, demonstrate a strong commitment to the legal profession, and possess the potential to be the next generation of State Bar leaders.
“We wanted to be proactive and intentional about training a diverse pool of future leaders,” said State Bar Executive Director Larry Martin. “These programs provide lawyers with the tools they need to be leaders in their communities, in their careers, and hopefully also at the State Bar. We’ve benefited from a number of our current board members, as well as numerous leaders in our divisions and sections, who first became engaged through these programs.”
Five of the nine women elected State Bar president during the State Bar’s 143-year history include (from left): Jill Kastner (2019-20); Margaret Hickey (2022-23); Cheryl Daniels (seated) (2021-22); Kathy Brost (2020-21); and Diane Diel (2008-09). Photo: Andy Manis
In the Circle
When Starlyn R. Tourtillot Miller graduated from law school in 2008, she knew nothing about the State Bar as an organization. As a young lawyer, she was nominated to attend the State Bar’s Leadership Summit. Tourtillot is with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Legal Services Department in Keshena.
“I remember Jill Kastner and Sherry Coley sitting next to me at my table, and they were so warm and inviting,” she said. “You could talk about your life as a woman practitioner, which includes your children and balancing those responsibilities. I was like ‘who are these people? This is amazing.’ I want to know more about it.”
Jill Kastner, former president of the Young Lawyers Division, was the sixth woman to serve as State Bar president (2019-20). Coley has been a mainstay on the Board of Governors, serving as board chair and as chair of the State Bar’s Finance Committee.
“The State Bar was ready to have serious discussions about diversity, and I was appointed to the Diversity Task Force in 2014,” Tourtillot Miller said.
“I worked closely with some fantastic people like Judge Carl Ashley, Andrew Chevrez, Margaret Hickey, and Michelle Behnke – these movers and shakers that were willing to talk about the challenges that the Bar faced,” she said.
Tourtillot Miller remembers one Board of Governors’ meeting. She was attending as a member of the Diversity Task Force, which was ready to give a report. Visitors or speakers who are not board members sit at the outer tables that encircle the board members.
“Judge Ashley, who chaired the task force, was sitting next to me at one of the outside tables,” she recalled. “It’s a big group of people. It’s intimidating.
“But he leaned over to me and said, ‘One day, you’re going to be in that circle.’ It just ignited something in me and helped me to see a different vision for myself.”
“WAAL made that concerted effort and said we want more representation, we want a seat at the table and to have opportunities to become officers of the State Bar,” said State Bar secretary Kristen Hardy. Hardy is a former president of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers (WAAL). Photo: Andy Manis
In 2016, Tourtillot Miller was appointed as the Native American liaison to the board through the Building Bridges program. She is a strong advocate for Native American attorneys and communities. In June, she finished her two-year term as State Bar secretary, elected in 2018.
“I feel like I was asked to run because, even though I didn’t have a vote as a liaison, I was very open and an advocate for tribal communities. I brought that experience and my perspective in whatever committee they put me on,” she said.
Jill Kastner, elected State Bar president in 2019, was the first women to be elected in a decade. Her election was the catalyst for four consecutive women presidents. Kastner, who competed in the National Model United Nations competition in college, is a natural leader. But as has been the case for many other women, her involvement in State Bar leadership started with “the ask.”
“A friend of mine from college, Jess King, called me up and asked if I would fill a vacancy on the Young Lawyers Division Board,” she said.
“It was because I was called by a friend and asked to serve that I first became involved. We have to remember that sometimes we do need to ask. We need to reach out to people, let them know about opportunities, and ask them to get involved.”
Kastner went on to serve as president of the State Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, which holds a seat on the State Bar’s Board of Governors.
“My first year there, it was very white, very male, and I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person on the board at the time, which makes sense because I was the YLD representative,” said Kastner, an attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin.
“It occurred to me that if we wanted the bar to be more relevant to younger lawyers from diverse backgrounds – I’m talking geographic diversity, practice-area diversity, government lawyers, small-firm lawyers, big-firm lawyers, in-house, as well as gender and racial diversity – we needed a more diverse board of governors.”
“That’s why I pushed so strongly to start the Leadership Development Summit, so that we could start to train younger lawyers from diverse backgrounds.”
Kastner said the State Bar “needed to make intentional and deliberate choices to increase gender diversity, racial diversity, geographic diversity, and so forth.”
“I think the leadership summit absolutely played a role,” she said. “I think the nominating committees are making a concerted effort to nominate people from different backgrounds and women candidates,” she said.
“I also think we took a lot of steps to make those phone calls to reach out, to let people know of available opportunities. Many of the presidents before me made those efforts as well, to be inclusive and to be welcoming to women leaders.”
Starlyn Tourtillot Miller was elected to a two-year term as State Bar secretary in 2018. She began her leadership path through the State Bar’s Leadership Summit, then served as the Native American representative on the State Bar Board of Governors. In 2014, she served on the State Bar’s Diversity Task Force.
Keeping it Going
Current State Bar President Cheryl Daniels plans to keep the ball rolling on the State Bar’s diversity initiatives, including more participation of individuals from diverse backgrounds in State Bar leadership roles.
Daniels, who was asked to serve on the YLD board at the start of her career, says the script is the same for those who want to get involved. “The thing about it is that once you express interest and do one piece in one area, you’re identified then as somebody who gets work done,” Daniels said. “That’s when the doors begin to open.”
Daniels also served as president of the
Wisconsin Law Foundation (2002-04, 2016-18). She got involved in the foundation as a young lawyer. “When a seat came up and someone said we need someone to fill it, I just raised my hand,” Daniels said.
“Sometimes people don’t realize that if you volunteer, you will get asked again, in any organization. You do things when you can, back off when you can’t, but they know you are there. And the connections you make will help your practice in the future.”
Daniels said women often raise their hands when called upon, and that’s what the State Bar is seeing now. Immediate past-president Kathy Brost was a longtime volunteer for the
Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference’s Planning Committee.
President-elect Hickey has a long resumé of bar leadership activities. Hardy (secretary), Elizabeth Reeths (treasurer), and Theresa McDowell (chair of the board) are relative newcomers who are making their way in the State Bar ranks.
“I am so proud that this is happening now, during my term. Women have taken this on with their multiple identities and are comfortable showing how to lead,” Daniels said.
Behnke, who watched in awe as Pam Barker became the first women president of the State Bar 28 years ago, says that as the State Bar continues its efforts to increase diversity in leadership and in the legal profession generally, history can be a guide.
“One of the things that’s really important is not to abandon things that have worked in the past,” Behnke said. “It is absolutely lovely that we have achieved this string of women leaders and officers. But we have to remember that while seeing other women in leadership is certainly helpful and encouraging, that by itself will not change what it takes for either other women to continue to participate, or more broadly, for a more diverse racial and ethnic or LGBTQ+ or disabled people to become involved. We have to remember the things that increased that diversity and keep doing them.”
Behnke also said greater involvement by diverse groups does not diminish other people. “This is not a zero-sum game,” Behnke said. “More women being involved or more people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, or with disabilities, or LGBTQ+ people – having that happen does not diminish participation of anyone else,” she said.
“It just enriches the work that we are doing. It ensures that we have a better shot at getting it right when we are tackling these issues because we didn’t forget a viewpoint.”
“Having three women or four women in leadership doesn’t mean that we have lost men participating. It doesn’t mean that we are excluding people of color,” Behnke added.
“This really is about broadening the pie. I would encourage people to think of it in that way so we don’t pit ourselves against others. We all need to be at the table.”
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