Washington state’s top judge tells how she dealt with discrimination in a male-dominated profession

Rising to the top of the legal profession is daunting for any lawyer, but particularly so for women in the hyper-competitive world of law whose upper echelons have long been guarded by powerful men. 

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, who joined the Washington State Supreme Court in 1992 and became Chief Justice in 2009, is shining exception to the status quo. 

In an interview with Washington Women Lawyers, an organization dedicated to furthering the full integration of women in the legal profession and promoting equal rights and opportunities for women, Madsen recounted the obstacles she faced as a young woman starting out in the profession in the late 1970s. 

When she graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law in 1977, only about 10% of her class was women, including future Washington Governor Gregoire.

The minority of women law students dealt with discrimination and harassment. Madsen remembers having a man walk up to her in class one day to say that she was taking up a seat that a man could be sitting in. And it was not uncommon for male professors to hit on female students.  

Madsen left her first job in a public defender’s office in Seattle because the senior partner in the firm didn’t think women should handle felony cases, which was a prerequisite for advancing one’s career. In response, she moved to a public defender’s office in Snohomish County, where she was hired as a felony lawyer. 

Her next career move was in 1982 to the city attorney’s office, where she became special prosecutor two years later to develop the child abuse component for the family violence project in Seattle. From there, she became a commissioner in the Seattle Municipal Court, then as Presiding Judge on the same court in 1988, before being popularly elected to the Supreme Court four years later. 

Even as an accomplished attorney, Madsen experience sexual harassment from colleagues.  

One judge enjoyed if Madsen would wear a tight sweater without jacket while addressing the court, she said, adding that she and other women avoided being in other judges’ chambers alone because they couldn’t keep their hands off the female lawyers.

Madsen’s career path has been unique in many ways. Most women went into established private firms rather than government posts, although some may have started out as prosecutors. None of the women from her graduating class went on to become judges.

However, the percentage of female judges is rising. In 1977, when she graduated and got her first job, she walked into court in Seattle and saw a woman judge. “I almost dropped over from surprise and shock that there could actually be a woman judge,” she said.

Now about 34% to 35% of judges in Washington are women, she said, compared to about 16% to 18% of female partners at large firms. 

Being a judge has allowed her flexibility to raise a family. 

“If firm life and the profession were more hospitable to women they wouldn’t leave in such large number,” she said. “Women are penalized in firms for choosing to have a family so they tend not to if they plan on staying.” 


Throughout Women’s History Month, Emery Reddy is celebrating female lawyers in Washington state who helped advance equality and open the door for other women to enter the profession.

« | »