Her personal heroes include 19th century women's rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
But to the many women who listened as Rosalie Wahl spoke Thursday night at Central Lakes College, it was Wahl herself who likely is listed among their own role models.
Wahl, 79, became part of Minnesota history when in 1977 she was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court by Gov. Rudy Perpich, replacing Harry H. MacLaughlin. She served on the state's highest court for 17 years, becoming a driving force on gender and racial fairness issues, including her work to attempt to bring an end to domestic violence.
Wahl, who lives in rural Lake Elmo, spoke Thursday to about 75 people -- the overwhelming majority were women -- at the special event, which raised funds for the Women's Center of Mid-Minnesota. The Brainerd Area Zonta Club sponsored the event.
Wahl explained what the experience was like for her when she was appointed to the Supreme Court. She also spoke about how there has been progress in ending domestic violence since she served on the bench, adding that there are still many things that need to be done. She criticized legislators who she said used the state budget crisis to decrease funding for battered women programs. She said there were 67 of Minnesota's 87 counties that saw its state allocations reduced for domestic abuse programs. Of those, 66 were rural counties.
"Domestic abuse seems to fall through the cracks," said Wahl.
Wahl was born Aug. 27, 1924, in Gordon, Kan., according to her biography provided online by the Minnesota Historical Society. She was 3 when her mother died and when she, her brother and sisters moved to live with her maternal grandparents on a farm near Birch Creek, Kan. Four years later, her grandfather and brother were killed by a train. She spent the rest of her childhood being raised by her grandmother with help from her mother's sister.
In 1942 Wahl enrolled at the University of Kansas, intending to major in journalism. In college she became involved with the campus YMCA where she helped form a women's interracial residential cooperative. She graduated in 1946 with a degree in sociology and married Roswell Wahl, a mechanical engineer.
In 1962 at age 38 she enrolled in the William Mitchell School of Law. Wahl was, according to her memoirs, "tired of sitting outside doors waiting for men inside to make the decisions." Her fifth child was born while she was in law school.
Wahl said Thursday she would make dinner for her family and then head to law classes at night, relying on the support of her family to get through that period of transition.
She passed the state bar examination and later taught criminal law at the University of Minnesota. She was a professor at William Mitchell before she accepted the appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court. While on the state Supreme Court, Wahl worked on task forces on gender fairness and racial bias and served as the court's liaison to a commission on the mentally disabled.
She was elected to the court in 1978 and was successfully re-elected in 1984 and 1990. She retired at the mandatory age of 70 in 1994. At the time of her retirement, women held four of the seven Minnesota Supreme Court seats.
Wahl said young women today need to read about the courageous women who came before them and find their own personal heroes.
Soon after it was announced that Wahl would be the first woman appointed to the state's highest bench, she said a woman thanked her for being ready when the time arrived for a woman to be considered for that position.
She said she knew a law degree would open doors for her, but when she was studying law and raising her five children, she didn't realize her degree would allow her the honor of serving on the Supreme Court, a job she said she gave the best 17 years of her life for.
"You may not know what you're getting ready for," Wahl told the 30 women from Jennifer Imsande's women's studies class at CLC, who attended Thursday. "But when the time comes, you'll be ready."
"I thought it was fantastic," said Jaime St. George, a CLC student, of Wahl's appearance at the college. "Politics is my major and it was incredible to hear a woman who has blazed the trail."
"I just really feel she's such a wonderful role model," said Lois Laurence, a Zonta member.
Several Brainerd area businesses and individuals donated the $25 ticket price so young girls and women could attend the event for free. Proceeds went to the Women's Center of Mid-Minnesota.
As part of The Brainerd Area Zonta Club's Courageous Women series of guest speakers, an expert on Amelia Earhart will speak in Brainerd Jan. 22 on the famous woman aviator. Kenton Spading, an Earhart author and researcher, has even gone on Earhart-related expeditions to uncover the mysteries behind her disappearance.
Zonta International is an organization that works to advance the status of women worldwide.
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