Friday, May 6, 2011

Honoring Michigan Mothers

by Wendy Alton

"I’ll be a wife and mother first, then First Lady.” ~Jackie Kennedy

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and it is fitting to take a moment to honor some Michigan mothers who were not only role models for their own children, but pioneers in their field. Because I am a lawyer, I am obviously drawn to Michigan mothers who were pioneers in the field of law.

Martha Strickland Clark (1853-1935). Martha was a single mother when she began law school at the University of Michigan Law School in 1882. In 1887 she became the first woman lawyer in Detroit. She was also the first woman to argue a case before the Michigan Supreme Court, and argued that a woman could divorce a husband who was abusing her. She was back in front of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1890 arguing that a woman could hold the office of deputy county clerk. She won both cases.

Rachel Andresen (1907-1988). At the age of 28, Rachel was widowed, left to raise three children on her own. Perhaps this was why she focused on children, founding Youth for Understanding, an international exchange program for high school students. Youth for Understanding still exists today, and provides opportunities for thousands of high school students. For her pioneering work and founding of Youth for Understanding, Rachel was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

Anne R. Davidow (1898-1991). Anne was actually denied admittance to the Detroit College of Law because she was a woman. So she attended another law school. She married and had two children, and became famous for a case she argued in front of the United States Supreme Court in 1948, Goesaert v Cleary. In that case, she argued against a law in Michigan that did not allow women to tend bar unless their fathers or husbands owned the bar. While Anne lost the case, the law was actually repealed, and the case of Goesaert v Cleary is taught in law schools around the country.

Cornelia Groefsema Kennedy (1923 - ). Cornelia Kennedy was the second woman to serve as Judge in Wayne County Circuit Court and the first Michigan woman to be appointed to the federal bench by President Nixon in 1970. She was then appointed by President Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. I have a special place in my heart for Justice Kennedy. When I had just passed the Michigan Bar, Justice Kennedy administered my oath to the federal bench, and swore me in as an attorney to the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. I also had the privilege of working for her son, Charles Kennedy, also a lawyer.

I couldn’t close this without thanking my own mother, Dorothy Sluka, for her constant love and support, for without that, I wouldn’t have the inspiration to be both a mother and lawyer today.

“All mothers are working mothers.” (author unknown). Take a moment this Sunday to thank those mothers who have made a difference in your life.

If you are interested in learning more about family law, please call Wendy Alton at 248-380-9976 or email her at

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