Rosalie Wahl would be worthy to be remembered if all she had done was break the gender barrier on the Minnesota Supreme Court. But Wahl, who died last year at age 88, was more than a female first. She was the leader of a successful effort to bring a greater measure of fairness and respect to all of the women involved in the Minnesota judicial system, from the lowliest defendants to high court judges.
Wahl’s story and its context — Minnesota’s experience with America’s most far-reaching 20th-century movement for social change — are told in a new book, “Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement,” by Star Tribune columnist and editorial writer Lori Sturdevant (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Two excerpts follow. The first comes from the story of Wahl’s 1978 election campaign against formidable competition to retain the Supreme Court seat to which Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed her in 1977:
The 1978 campaign to unseat Rosalie Wahl rebuts the notion that Minnesota has never witnessed the rough-and-tumble judicial electioneering that erodes respect for the courts. … Precisely this sort of campaign was waged against Rosalie. …
Each of Rosalie’s challengers denied that her gender had inspired his candidacy, but each argued that in experience, training, and perspective she was unqualified for the high court — an argument sure to resonate with those who doubted that women belonged in judicial robes. …
Of the three men challenging Rosalie, [Robert] Mattson [Sr.] was the best known and most clearly identified with socially conservative traditionalists in the DFL Party. … His political mentors included federal judge Miles Lord, for whom Mattson had served as chief deputy while Lord was attorney general in the 1950s, and governor Karl Rolvaag. … The latter appointed Mattson in 1964 to complete [Walter Mondale’s term as attorney general]. He left that post two years later without seeking re-election, telling reporters … he could not afford to serve in the $18,000 a year post. Rosalie’s job paid $49,000 in 1978, a sum he evidently considered sufficient. …
Wahl and her backers were about to experience how vicious judicial politics could be — even in a “Minnesota nice” state in which judges do not wear party labels. Beginning three weeks after the primary, Mattson launched a series of newspaper ads criticizing Wahl’s opinions in selected supreme court cases. They portrayed her as “soft” on rape and drug trafficking, insufficiently respectful of police work, and at odds with state law.
Mattson was seriously distorting Wahl’s record. … When reporters asked Mattson to explain his ads’ contention that her ‘vote’ in [disputed] cases “is inconsistent with Minnesota law,” he responded that every dissent from the court’s majority opinion is inconsistent with the law, because the majority opinion is the law. … He was voicing stunning hostility toward dissenting opinions. …
The harsh tone and dubious veracity of Mattson’s critique rallied the state’s legal and political establishment to Wahl’s defense. … Her best chance to defend herself against Mattson’s charges came just four days before the election, at a debate between the two supreme court candidates sponsored by the Ramsey County Bar Association. When he reiterated his by-then familiar litany of accusations against Wahl, she was ready. She explained that she had upheld convictions in the vast majority of the approximately 130 criminal cases that the high court had seen in the previous year and added that the cases Mattson faulted were dissents based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. “I was defending not only the rights of criminals, but your rights and my rights,” she said. Noting that misrepresentation of facts is a violation of the code of judicial ethics, she continued, “If people want to judge between the candidates for this office, they might want to look no further than the kind of campaign that is being waged.”
Voters unaccustomed to such intense fire in a judicial campaign evidently were watching. Many Minnesota women identified with Rosalie. Many had themselves struggled against gender-based barriers to establish careers. Many had started or restarted careers after raising families, or looked forward to doing so one day, and valued Rosalie’s example.
Many knew the pain of divorce and admired a woman who achieved self-sufficiency in its aftermath. Many who heard Rosalie speak to female audiences were touched as she called on women to support each other’s ambitions. “Most of us, imprinted by our culture with a sense of our own limits, need to know that the horizons are wider than we ever thought they were,” she said to an AAUW chapter in May — one of only a few of her 1978 campaign speeches preserved with a full text. “We need to nourish in ourselves and each other a newfound sense of self-esteem.”
Even Rosalie’s appearance helped connect her with voters. She looked like somebody’s friendly grandmother — which she was. (Her eldest grandchild, Sean Christopher Wahl, was eight years old in 1978. Five more grandchildren would be born in the ensuing fourteen years.)
The court appointee who represented a breakthrough for the state’s feminist movement seventeen months earlier had become an emblem of the aspirations of half the population. Rosalie won a bigger victory on November 6 than her most ardent supporters six months earlier had dared to predict. She took 57 percent of the vote, 719,234 to 551,521. That solid victory assured that, though she would stand for election again in 1984 and 1990, she would not again face serious electoral opposition to remain on the court. But its import was much larger. Wahl’s success gave future governors a green light to appoint women to the state’s judicial benches. The political establishment was now on notice that women in judicial robes were acceptable to Minnesotans.
The book concludes with a status report on the women’s movement of the 20th century and a summons for a new generation of Minnesota women to revive its unmet goals:
For Rosalie and for the feminists who strove to put women into all three branches of government, securing and safeguarding human wholeness was a primary purpose of the law. It was also the ultimate aim of the mid-twentieth-century women’s movement. Participants in that movement sought equality for their own sakes, to be sure, but also for the good their elevated status and wider opportunity might bring to men and children. A more humane society for all would be the result, they maintained.
That goal is yet to be achieved, even within the legal profession. With female students comprising 42 percent of the University of Minnesota Law School student body and 49 percent at William Mitchell, the profession is now well populated with women. But like many other American professions, it has not adjusted its practice to accommodate society’s need for each generation to raise the next one properly. As Judge Susan Richard Nelson said, it’s still common at large law firms for promising women attorneys to lose ground when they become mothers, while male attorneys pay no such career penalty for becoming fathers.
At home, more American men today report sharing household maintenance and childrearing chores than their fathers did, but women still carry a heavier load. Though more than 70 percent of mothers of Minnesota grade school children have been employed outside the home for more than a generation, schools continue to dismiss children for the day at mid-afternoon and offer little or no programming during the long summer recess.
Most employers offer no on-site childcare or other provision for employees’ small children. The recent trend has been toward ending, not expanding, corporate experiments in flexible work hours and sites. Federal law requires employers of fifty or more employees to provide up to three months of unpaid parental leave in the year after the birth of a child, and Minnesota law says employers of twenty-one or more workers must allow six weeks of unpaid leave. But parents employed by small employers enjoy no such protection, and nothing requires the paid parental leaves that are standard in many other developed countries.
Altering the American workplace to be friendlier to mothers, fathers, and the children they raise together is a major unfinished item on the agenda pursued during the American women’s movement’s so-called “second wave.” Historians use that term about the period from 1960 to 1990, to distinguish it from the women’s suffrage movement, which started at an 1848 meeting in Seneca Falls and concluded sixty-eight years later with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The second wave can be said to have reached its zenith in Minnesota in 1991, with the 4-3 female majority on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
A year later, Rosalie observed that some women lawyers were “unwilling — not unable, but unwilling — to do some of the things that are required if you practice law in a certain way, to give up all the things you have to put aside to be [a] successful lawyer in certain fields. … Money is not the first thing in their lives.” She was not criticizing their choices. To the contrary: she was praising them for refusing to bow to professional demands set predominantly by men.
She voiced a hope that was prevalent then: “If you get more women there as senior partners, there will be more change.” That hope has been tempered in the intervening years, as a number of women who climbed into executive suites conspicuously opted to reinforce existing norms rather than reforming them. It increasingly appears that if a greater measure of humane wholeness is to come to all who populate the American workplace, the impetus for change will need to come not only from women at the top but also from the grassroots — just as it did in the women’s movement’s first two waves.
There’s more on the feminist agenda of the 1970s that remains relevant in the 2010s. Pay equity is still elusive. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September 2013 that, on average, the nation’s working women earned seventy-seven cents for every dollar men earned, a ratio that had not budged in five years despite considerable dislocation for male workers during the Great Recession.
Though domestic violence rates have dropped significantly in the last twenty years, one-third of the women murdered in the United States each year still die at the hands of a current or former husband or boyfriend. Though women have made great inroads in previously male-dominated professions, in 2012 women still held only 16.6 percent of board of directors’ seats at U.S. Fortune 500 corporations. Minnesota has yet to elect a female governor.
What [former appellate Judge] Harriet Lansing said of Rosalie at her memorial service, quoting an inscription that Rosalie herself often quoted from a nineteenth-century New Hampshire woman’s tombstone, is a fitting epitaph for the twentieth-century Minnesota women’s movement as well: “She done all she could.” But more change is needed. More change is coming. The Baby Boomers’ daughters are on their way. Bring on the next wave.