Mary Ann McMorrow: What Millennials Can Learn From Late Feminist Icon

ByShu-Yen Wei

Mary Ann McMorrow, 83, died on last month Chicago. She is remembered as the first female State Supreme Court Justice with a legal career spanning more than fifty years, and one at the top of her craft. Current Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, and McMorrow’s successor, called her a “role model for all lawyers.” Her trailblazing legacy encompassed a series of onlies and firsts: the only woman in and president of her 1953 law school class at Loyola University Chicago, the first woman to try felony cases, the first female leader of the Illinois Appellate Court Executive Committee and the first female Chief Justice of Illinois, serving from 2002 to 2005.

McMorrow’s life and career are a testament to the progress of time and the triumphs of changing attitudes on gender inequality. Despite the generation gap between her biography and the still-to-be-written stories of millennial women, key lessons can be taken from her experiences to inform and enrich our lives. Here are some things we could learn from her achievements and experiences.

A male supervisor once told McMorrow that women did not argue cases before the Illinois Supreme Court and that a male peer would take over for her after she had prepared the points of a legal brief. Had she taken the words of her misguided superior to heart, she may not have had her illustrious career and accomplished so much. The ability to discern constructive criticism from malicious intent will consistently help inform career and life decisions. In terms of civil rights, such recognition is also important in an era where discrimination may not be so blatant. 

Friends and colleagues remembered McMorrow as someone who gave back to her professional community and those in need. She was not content to simply rest on her laurels but mentored other women in the law profession. She was involved in charities and foundations and used speaking engagements to encourage lawyers to help the poor. As chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, she instituted higher fees for law licensure and diverted the $2 million in excess funds to legal aid organizations for low-income residents. Especially in a time where local communities are in decline because of excess technology, interpersonal networks and connections become more crucial to enacting change and discouraging apathy. 

McMorrow loved trying out different restaurants and going to the opera. She retired in 2006 despite being top in her profession, saying "I don’t want to read briefs for the rest of my life. I want to travel."

While there is an increase of competition in the workplace for millennials, the relative youth and technological capabilities of the generation provide more leeway and opportunity for self-exploration. Outside hobbies and curiosities inform personal character and continue to provide varied perspective to otherwise uniform professional experiences. One may even find that personal interests lead to a second job or career in the future.