Contact: Rabiah Burks
Marygold Shire Melli, first woman to earn tenure at UW Law School, to receive Margaret Brent Award
“The Margaret Brent Awards celebrate the extraordinary achievements of female lawyers who have significantly contributed to the advancement of women in the profession,” said Mary B. Cranston, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “Our honorees’ accomplishments serve as an inspiration to women throughout the nation.”
During an era when most young women were encouraged to get married and start families, Melli’s parents were determined to make sure all three of their daughters attended college. While both parents worked and struggled to maintain their family, Melli’s mother felt her own salary could have improved if she had a degree.
“She wanted to make sure that all three of us could earn our own way,” Melli said.
Melli, who entered the University of Wisconsin Law School with two other women, graduated second in her class and was the only woman to complete the program.
Despite her academic success at the school, she never received a required recommendation from the dean for consideration for work at a law firm.
“I noticed that the list would go up on the bulletin board, but my name was never on it,” Melli said. When she asked the dean about it, he said, “Well, Miss Shire, none of those firms would hire you. Why should I waste their time?”
Instead, the school arranged other opportunities for Melli through the Ford Foundation and the Wisconsin Legislative Council, where she would work to revise the state’s criminal code.
“The Wisconsin criminal statutes had been enacted over a period of decades without anyone paying attention to the differences in language,” Melli said. Her work contributed greatly to modern-day criminal codes and statutes.
Early in her career, Melli rarely worked with other women.
“I don’t think I really thought a lot about it,” Melli said. “I just knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, and I also realized it was a very unusual thing because there weren’t many women lawyers at the time.”
She also faced various challenges when men did not trust her ability to do her job because she was a woman. When she was hired by the Wisconsin Legislative Council to revise the children’s code, the chairman of the committee was outraged that a woman was given the job.
“I happened to be in the room when he came to the office and was very angry that they hired a woman for the job,” Melli said. “He said, ‘This is an important committee, and we don’t want a girl in there.’ I just sat there quietly.”
Her boss advocated for her and persuaded the chairman to give her a chance.
“By the time the study was done, the chairman was one of my biggest supporters,” Melli said. “So things change.”
As a result of her hard work and dedication to the profession, Melli secured a tenure-track professorship as a part-time employee, which, at the time, was a rare accomplishment for anyone and especially difficult for women.
Although there were challenges to being a woman in the profession, she worked through them.
“When I started, I did not go around with a chip on my shoulder because people would say, ‘Who’s going to hire a woman?’ I just did the best I could,” Melli said. “My advice to anybody is to do the best you can and you’ll probably be successful.”
Melli is first woman to earn tenure at the University of Wisconsin Law School,
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, Sara Holtz, Gladys Kessler and Therese M. Stewart will also receive the award. Previous honorees include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
More information about the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards can be foundonline.
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