The year 2001 marks a milestone in Madalyn Maxwell's already amazing life. Fifty years ago, Ms. Maxwell, an Assistant Attorney General and the Chief of the Public Aid Bureau for the State of Illinois, was admitted to the Illinois Bar. Two years later, she joined the Illinois Attorney General's office in Springfield and, with the exception of one year, has remained with that office since 1953. An amazing feat for anyone, even more so for a woman that grew up in a time when women did not hold jobs, let alone obtain a law degree.
What may make Ms. Maxwell's story even more significant are the people who influenced her life. Her father, Ralph Maxwell, "came up kind of hard," losing both his parents at a very young age. Ms. Maxwell explained that he was essentially raised by his Grandmother Maxwell. Shortly after Ms. Maxwell was born, things changed dramatically for the family. Madalyn's Grandfather House, her mother's father and a lawyer, was very fond of Ralph. Having a strong understanding of the importance of education, Grandfather House offered to help Ralph attend college. So, with only an 8th grade education, Ms. Maxwell's father packed up his family and moved from Nashville, Illinois to Urbana, Illinois. Ms. Maxwell was only one and a half years old when her father began to pursue his law degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"At some point in time my father said to my mother, 'Here we are in a college town, and you ought to be doing this too.'" So, Ms. Maxwell's mother earned her bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois as well. "My father always said that I was the prime example of my mother's psychology course," she remembered with a laugh. After graduating in 1932, her father began a successful law career that eventually led to his appointment to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1951.
Ms. Maxwell obviously cannot credit only one person as her greatest influence. She acknowledges her parents as well as her Grandfather House as her sources of inspiration. "My Grandfather House was one of those larger-than-life figures. He was the family folk hero," she explained. He grew up on a "dirt scrabble farm," and worked on a streetcar in St. Louis to fund his way through law school. She fondly remembered her grandfather as a person "who was absolutely devoted to education. He thought that education was the way to better yourself both economically and in life experiences and enjoyment. He treated his daughters exactly the same way he treated his sons. They all went to college. They all went to [the University of] Illinois." So, when it came time for Ms. Maxwell to attend college, there was no question as to where she would be going.
Before enrolling at U of I, Ms. Maxwell spent two years at Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Being in Mississippi during the turbulent, violent times prior to the civil rights movement, she witnessed unimaginable racism and hatred. The first time she saw two separate drinking fountains, she was appalled and sickened.
When she finally returned to Illinois to begin her first semester at the University of Illinois, World War II was just ending. Few students were on campus that first term, but she said that by the second semester the soldiers had returned looking worn and aged from battle. The atmosphere surrounding her was anything but pleasant. She recalled that the professors would have rather ignored the few female students, and she often felt like just an "after thought."
Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere that surrounded her, Ms. Maxwell continued on, and in 1947 she graduated from the University of Illinois' College of Law. She was one of only 10 females out of roughly 300 students in the law school when she graduated. In 1951, Ms. Maxwell was admitted to the Illinois Bar. If that was not cause enough for celebration, her father was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court that very same day. A picture recalling the momentous day remains on Ms. Maxwell's office wall, nestled among all of her other honors and memories.
As Ms. Maxwell began her law career at the Illinois Attorney General's office in 1953, she found that she was only one of two women who worked there. However, she did not mind. She has found that even to this day she has not been discriminated against in terms of wages or positions, and she has not been treated unfairly because of her sex. "The atmosphere was different than in law school," she explained about the Attorney General's office. "I don't think the guys were threatened." With the exception of one year, which she calls a "fluke," Ms. Maxwell has remained quite content at the Attorney General's office for approximately forty-seven years.
As one would imagine, during her time with the State Ms. Maxwell has noticed many changes between the legal profession and women. The skyrocketing number of female lawyers is the main change, but Ms. Maxwell feels that as time has worn on, men have grown more and more accustomed to the idea of female attorneys in government practice.
Ms. Maxwell's interest in law expands far beyond her active involvement in child support cases. Ms. Maxwell's interests include: women's rights, equal opportunity, and civil rights. She speaks knowledgeably and strongly of the issues included in these areas.
While law is her profession, it is not her entire life. Ms. Maxwell has spent much of her spare time volunteering and being active with a number of charitable organizations in the Springfield area, such as the Sojourn Women's Center, the Evening Symphony Guild, the Board of Planned Parenthood, the International Child Support Committee, the Family Law Section of the Illinois State Bar Association, and her church's activities. Ms. Maxwell has also served on the Committee of National Child Support Organization, which has allowed her to take a number of trips abroad in order to teach the importance of child support legislation and laws to foreign leaders.
Ms. Maxwell's story is truly inspirational. Raised in a family that nurtured dreams and aspirations, she has successfully assisted thousands of children across Illinois. She also has helped numerous women recognize that dreams really are attainable, no matter how difficult your personal situation. Ms. Maxwell is nothing less than a folk hero, just like her grandfather.
Katie Williams is a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in Journalism.