Paving the Way: the First American Women Law Professors, the long-awaited book by Herma Hill Kay, former Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law who passed away in 2017, tells the stories of the first fourteen female law professors at ABA- and AALS-accredited law schools in the United States.
Paving the Way is filled with details, quiet and loud, of each of their lives and careers from their own perspectives. Kay wraps each story in rich historical context, lest we forget the extraordinarily difficult times in which these women lived. Paving the Way is not just a collection of individual stories of remarkable women but also a well-crafted interweaving of law and society during a historical period when women’s voices were often not heard and sometimes actively muted.
One of these amazing women is UW Law School’s own Professor Marygold Shire Melli. Margo Melli, as she was more commonly known, attended UW Law School post-WWII and joined the faculty in 1959 where she taught in the areas of family law, juvenile law, and criminal law. She passed away in 2018.
Professor Melli’s research interests related primarily to families and children. She participated in a large-scale research project that resulted in reform of the Wisconsin child support system and that served as a model for the requirement by the federal government that states adopt Child Support Guidelines. She also researched and wrote about the role of negotiation in divorce, various aspects of the processing of divorce cases, and developments in the law of child custody.
In 2008, Professor Melli gave an oral history interview to the Dane County Bar Association in which she describes her early life, law school experience, and career. The transcript is available in our UW Law School Digital Repository. I especially enjoyed her account of her first day of law school:
But I can remember the first — walking into an early what was some sort of an explanation of law school, and I was late, as usual, and I pulled open the door and I looked in and said, my gosh, it’s a men’s gym class ’cause it was all a sea of males. And I shut the door. And then I heard the, you know, the person addressing them — I think it was the dean of the law school — saying, “And in the law,” etc., etc. I thought, oh, my Lord, I’ve gotta walk in. Well, I walked in.
She goes on to describe her early legal work at the Wisconsin Legislative Council, being a law faculty member, and her work in the developing field of family law.
The dean said to me early on, he said, “What areas would you really like to specialize in, Margo?” And I said, well, I’d like to specialize in the family area. “Oh,” he said, “you don’t want to do that. There isn’t really any law there.”
I could see that things were about to change. We were in the midst of a huge revolution in our attitudes towards the family and children and so on. And I turned out to be right. But at that point, this course called Domestic Relations was sort of a stepchild in the law school.
I remember when I started teaching it, both of them [practicing attorneys who had previously taught the course] gave me their books, you know, and patted me on the head and wished me luck, but they — I had the feeling that both of them thought it was kind of a, you know, an unimportant field. You wanted to deal with tax and real estate and things like that. So it was this two-credit course but the time I left, it was two three-credit courses plus several seminars… It grew into a whole specialization.
A whole specialization indeed. Professor Melli was a prolific and well-respected scholar in the area of family law. Her many journal articles, reports, books, conference proceedings, and working papers are available on the UW Law School Digital Repository.
Here’s the complete table of contents from Paving the Way:
- Leading the way : Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong
- Armstrong’s pre-World War II contemporaries : Harriet Spiller Daggett and Margaret Harris Amsler
- The czarina of legal education : Soia Mentschikoff
- From the library to the faculty : five women who changed careers : Miriam Theresa Rooney, Jeanette Ozanne Smith, Janet Mary Riley, Helen Elsie Steinbinder, and Maria Minnette Massey
- The mid-fifties : Ellen Ash Peters and Dorothy Wright Nelson
- The end of an era : Joan Miday Krauskopf and Marygold Shire Melli
- The next decades : Ruth Bader Ginsburg and women law professors from the 1960s to the 1980s
- Appendix: a note on Clemence Myers Smith, the sixth woman law professor
Hat tip to TaxProf Blog