Women’s History Month is a time for commemorating and celebrating the vital role women play in American history.

Beginning in 1982 and continuing for the next five years, the U.S. Congress passed resolutions designating a week in March as Women’s History Week. After petitioning by the National Women’s History Project, in 1987 Congress declared March as Women’s History Month.

In the U.S. judiciary, as in the legal profession, women still trail men when it comes to representation. Women make up 34% of state court judges in the U.S. and 32% of state judges in Illinois. Similarly, women account for roughly one-third of active judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court, U.S. Magistrate, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

These women have taken many different pathways to the bench. This Women’s History Month, we highlight three women who’ve blazed these trials in the Illinois judiciary.

Justice of the Peace Catherine Waugh McCulloch

Born in 1862 in Niagara County, NY, Catherine Waugh McCulloch was a prohibitionist and suffragist who went on to become the first woman elected as justice of the peace in Illinois.

McCulloch graduated from Rockford Seminary in 1882 and the Union College of Law in Chicago in 1886. She was admitted to the Illinois bar the same year. McCulloch and her husband went on to start their own law firm, McCulloch & McCulloch, in Chicago.

Throughout her career, McCulloch campaigned for laws that would provide equal rights to women. She drafted laws that gave women equal guardianship over their children and advocated for raising the age of consent for girls from 14 to 16. In 1907, McCulloch was elected as justice of the peace in Evanston. She went on to win an appointment as a master in chancery of the Cook County Superior Court in 1917.

During her career, McCulloch was involved with the Equity Club, the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, the National American Women Suffrage Association, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, and the Illinois State Bar Association.

Judge Mary Margaret Bartelme

Born in 1866, Chicago-native Mary Margaret Bartelme was the first woman to be appointed public guardian of Cook County and the first female judge in Illinois.

Bartelme graduated from Northwestern University in 1894 and was admitted to the bar the same year. In 1897, Illinois Governor John R. Tanner appointed Bartelme to the position of public guardian in Cook County, a role she held for 16 years. During that time, Bartelme established a “Mary Club” in her house. This was a place for girls to be supervised before they were placed into foster care. She went on to establish two more houses. By 1923, over 2,600 girls had passed through the houses.

In 1923, Bartelme was elected judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County and became the first female judge in Illinois. Throughout her career, Bartelme was involved with various organizations including the Chicago Business Women’s Club, the Chicago Suffrage Club, the Cordon Club, the Women’s City Club of Chicago, the League of Women Voters, the Friendly Big Sisters League, and the Everyday Club.

Justice Mary Ann McMorrow

Born in Chicago in 1930, Mary Ann McMorrow was the first woman to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and its first female chief justice.

McMorrow graduated from Loyola University in 1953 and was admitted to the bar that same year. She worked in private practice until she was appointed assistant state’s attorney in the Cook County Criminal Division. McMorrow was the first woman to prosecute felony cases in Cook County. In 1976, she was elected a judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County and in 1985 was assigned to the Appellate Court. During her time on the Appellate Court, she was the first women elected to serve as chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Appellate Court

In 1992, McMorrow became the first woman elected to the Illinois Supreme Court. When she was elected as chief justice in 2002, she became the first woman to head any of the three branches of state government.

During her career, McMorrow was active in the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, the American Inns of Court, the American Judicature Society, and the National Association of Women Judges.

Before her death in 2013, the Commission on Professionalism had the opportunity to interview McMorrow. Learn more about her over half a century of serving the people of Illinois and why she’s still an inspiration to so many today.

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