Shirley S. Abrahamson, a Woman of Firsts

A sketch of the late Shirley S. Abrahamson, commissioned as part of her DASA recognition in 2013. Courtesy Bonnie Sklarski.

As a child, Shirley S. Abrahamson, JD’56, LLD’91, knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I suppose first I intended to be a teacher, but somewhere at about age 5 or 6 years old, I decided to be a lawyer,” Abrahamson recalled in a video made in conjunction with IU’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award, which she received in 2013. “If I really went back, before [wanting to be] a teacher, I was going to be president of the United States.”

This sense of self-assuredness and ambition carried through her life. Growing up in New York City in the 1930s, she went on to graduate magna cum laude from New York University and then, as the lone woman, finished first in her law class at IU. This was only the first in a series of firsts for the trailblazer.

One of her classmates at IU was Lee Hamilton, JD’56, LLD’91, who went on to serve in Congress for many years. He says of Abrahamson: “I remember very well the reaction of other law school students to Shirley’s performance. We all stood in awe of her ability to recite cases and to make arguments.”

Collage of press clipping and photos about Shirley Abrahamson.
“We all stood in awe of her ability ,” said Lee Hamilton about his IU Law classmate, the late Shirley Abrahamson. Courtesy State Bar of Wisconsin.

She moved to Wisconsin with her husband, Seymour, PhD’56, following graduation. Abrahamson became the first female lawyer at a Madison law firm and was tapped to be a partner within a year.

In 1976, Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where she was, again, the first woman to serve. She assumed the position of chief justice in 1996.

Before Abrahamson became chief, she joined Ruth Bader Ginsburg on President Bill Clinton’s short list of candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Among jurists I have encountered in the U.S. and abroad, Shirley Abrahamson is the very best,” said the late Ginsburg. “As lawyer, law teacher, and judge, she inspired legions to follow in her way, to strive constantly to make the legal system genuinely equal and accessible to all who dwell in our fair land. She never [forgot] that law exists to serve all the people composing society, not just those in privileged positions.”

Abrahamson sat a total of 19 years as chief justice and 43 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, retiring in 2019, and earning the distinction of being the longest-serving justice in Wisconsin history, perhaps the longest in U.S. history as well.

Collage of press clipping and photos about Shirley Abrahamson.
Shirley Abrahamson is arguably the most accomplished jurist to have graduated from Indiana University, setting precedent wherever she went. Courtesy State Bar of Wisconsin.

Over her tenure, she garnered a reputation for having a herculean work ethic, commonly working 18-hour days, becoming friends with the late-night cleaning staff at the courthouse. Her son Daniel told the Wisconsin State Journal that his mother slept only three to four hours a night because “that’s all she needed.”

Now considered a monumental figure in law and women’s rights, Abrahamson, who died Dec. 19, 2020, at the age of 87, was the recipient of 15 honorary doctor of laws degrees. The indefatigable jurist reviewed more than 10,000 cases, and wrote 530 majority opinions, 490 dissents, and 325 concurring opinions.

“At every step along the way she has distinguished herself as an outstanding performer,” said Hamilton. “Indiana University can take great pride from the fact that she graduated from the Indiana University School of Law and has been a trailblazer all the way and has reflected great credit on this university and its law school.”

Written By
Lance Farrell
Lance is the associate director of content for the IUAA.