As a black woman who grew up in a Mississippi sharecropping family in the 1950s, Chief Judge Maxine White has faced many obstacles. But she’s never let them limit her.
While working on a feature for our first annual Women’s Issue, we interviewed Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White. The first African American woman to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Wisconsin, and the first to serve as Chief Judge in our county, she’s repeatedly shattered glass ceilings and broken through color barriers over the course of her career.
What sparked your interest in law? Have you always wanted to be a judge?
The spark probably came from the society that I grew up in, the rural south: Mississippi. I was a sharecropper’s daughter. There were a lot of instances of motivation to figure out how to improve one’s plight in life. Segregation was approved of by everybody – the laws, everything condoned it. It just seemed like such rampant unfairness. Conditions were really dire.
I was born in 1951. Even though we had Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, it continued throughout my lifetime.
How did you end up in Milwaukee?
I’m part of the Great Migration of the 60s and early 70s. We moved from the south to the north, various enclaves of families, and lived with siblings while we sought employment and opportunities to move forward.
I’m number eight of eleven. After getting my undergraduate degree from Elkhorn State in Mississippi, I came to Milwaukee, to be with them. And it seemed like a good fit for me. I worked for a couple of years, then got my master’s at the University of Southern California. Then I went to DC. I was one of 24 people selected Secretary Patricia Harris – who was over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appointed by Jimmy Carter – to be an intern.
I left the federal government for law school at Marquette. That’s my third degree.
Were your parents supportive of your studies?
My parents were cotton sharecroppers. We lived in the deep south – you had to get home before dark if you wanted to find your house.
We lived on someone else’s land. We got money from them for the seed, we grew their crops, and we hoped to get some of the profit, but we rarely got much.
They were grade-school educated but very smart, smart enough to know how to take care of their kids on very little, and help their community as well, and to encourage us to do the best that we could, to have a better life. We had a lovely family. No violence. No drugs. No bad behavior. Just a lot of rampant fun – our own football team.
We always had relatives who came to visit from the north, and we’d think: “Is it better there? What’s it like, being able to go into establishments – into medical clinics and grocery stores – through the front door?
What were your early experiences in Milwaukee like?
I can only judge conditions as I viewed them. But when I came here I found Milwaukee different than any place I’d ever been. I took the bus Downtown, to the corner of Plankinton and Second. My first job after college was at [a restaurant there] as a personnel person at the front desk. I worked in an all-white environment, but I had mentors there, older women.
When I left there for the social security administration, and was hired by the office here in Milwaukee, it was the result of a lawsuit that had been brought by African American clerks. I was a beneficiary of their work. They didn’t get promoted. But I did.
There were fighters there. There were people who had been clerical staff who were not promoted according to their experiences and their abilities, because they were African American. And apparently the federal government must have agreed with them because through the lawsuit they outlined a protocol to reach out to minorities, to give them opportunities, and I happened to be one of those beneficiaries. That was 1972.
It sounds like you had several mentors?
Every step of the way. First, my mom and dad. Second, my siblings. And at the small black college – Elkhorn State – the department heads. I’ve always encountered very kind people.
And you were surrounded by strong women?
I lived in an environment where men were comfortable with women. My mother worked multiple jobs. My father was the security force for our family, making sure we were safe and protected from outside sources. My mother took care of the home front. She made plans to feed 11 to 13 to 15, whoever stopped by. She was an extraordinary manager, and my dad was not insulted by her strength in any way.
I had a grandmother who stood six feet tall, who never feared anybody, who was my champion of good grace and humility and hard work – and was also always fighting for the dignity of mankind. “People might want to ignore you,” she’d say, but you have an obligation to see people for who they are. And they have an obligation to see you for who you are.”
I came from a family of strong women, and strong men who were comfortable with strong women. They were partners.
You consider Vel Phillips a mentor too?
I met Vel Phillips in the late 1970s, when I was working for social security. I wasn’t even a lawyer. I met her when she came to speak to a group of professionals – we had this thing called “Professional Day” in the federal ranks – and Vel Phillips was one of the speakers who addressed us. Everyone was enamored of her.
She talked about the challenges of obtaining her goals, the struggles that she and her husband had, their own and the ones that society brought them too.
What was your experience at law school like?
It was extraordinary. It was something I did in my thirties. I was leaving a very good work environment where I was moving up the ladder … I’d gained a master’s degree as a federal employee. And so it was risky, in a way. But it was worth every bit of discomfort.
I went there with my eyes wide open, and they were only closed a few hours a night.
I grew up in an environment without good books, one-room schoolhouses. My parents loved us dearly, but they were grade-school educated … I really had to put my all in it.
Did you face additional obstacles early in your career, as a woman of color?
The obstacles and the challenges were always there. They never left me. When I left the cotton fields of Mississippi, they followed me. I’m the same person now. I’m an African American whose history is steeped in having to stand up and stand out, work hard, be humble, be appropriate, try to meet in the middle whenever possible, to show people that I’m capable and confident. It never goes away. But it’s not what wakes me up in the morning. Because I would be defeated. The challenges go broad and deep.
You’re also the first African American woman to serve as the Chief Judge here. What does it feel like to achieve a first like that?
It feels like another opportunity and another way to help a lot of people. It feels wonderful to be part of a team of people – the judiciary – with so much power and discretion.
Have professional women in Wisconsin made significant progress since you entered the workforce?
What did the honorable Vel Phillips say. “Two steps forward …” It’s not enough. One is not enough. I was a one-er for two decades after Vel.
And when it comes to pay for women generally, and giving them opportunities in all the faces of the government, we’re still behind.
We do a whole lot of things to illustrate that we have the capacity to bear a lot. And when we come into the workplace, regardless of the environment, there’s a hesitation to let us deploy our assets in ways that men are able to do.
Women are still not given opportunities at the same rate … and when you add the issue of race, and the absence of opportunities for black and brown people even harder.