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Women in the Judiciary: A Wisconsin Tradition

March is Women’s History Month, making now an especially appropriate time for Wisconsin lawyers and legal professionals to reflect on the contributions that women lawyers have made. Women lawyers have been advancing justice in Wisconsin for years — especially in our state judiciary. For example, women currently occupy 6 of the 7 seats on our state supreme court, making it home to the highest percentage of women on a state supreme court in the United States. Likewise, women have held a majority of seats on our supreme court for the past 15 years. 

However, women making history in the Wisconsin judiciary is not a new phenomenon. In 1891, the first woman to be granted a judicial appointment in the United States was a Wisconsin woman named Kate Hamilton Pier. Before becoming a lawyer, Pier was a successful real estate businesswoman in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She had three daughters: Kate, Caroline, and Harriet, all of whom would become lawyers like their mother. Notably, all four of these remarkable women would be among the first 20 women admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar.

When Pier’s daughter, Kate, decided to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School, Pier enrolled with her. They both graduated together in 1887. The pair were among the first ten women to graduate from the U.W. Law School. (As an aside, the very first woman to receive a law degree in Wisconsin was Lavinia Goodell in 1875.)

Upon graduation, Pier and her daughter returned to Fond du Lac but soon moved to the Milwaukee area to set up a law practice. Pier’s other two daughters, Caroline and Harriet, graduated from the U.W. Law School in 1891 and joined their mother’s practice in Milwaukee. Later, in 1891, Pier made U.S. history by becoming the first woman appointed to a judicial position in the United States. She was appointed as a circuit court commissioner for the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, paving the way for an ever-increasing number of women to hold judicial positions in Wisconsin and the rest of the country. 

As this history reflects, Wisconsin has always had a deep bench when it comes to exceptional women lawyers, and we are surely the better for it. This Women’s History Month and beyond, we take pride in that tradition of excellence. 

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