Throughout this month leading up to our 100th anniversary, WLAM celebrates the lives of important female figures in the legal profession. Today, we celebrate Honorable Lila M. Neuenfelt, who was a Dearborn Justice of the Peace, before becoming the first woman ever elected to the Michigan Circuit bench in 1941. The press announced her election with the headline “Justice Dons a Skirt.” When members of the press agreed with her, they referred to her “womanly wisdom,” and when they didn’t, they wondered how a woman could be so illogical at times and so completely to the point at others.
Judge Neuenfelt graduated with an L.L.B. from the University of Detroit in 1922. After having to wait six months, she became a member of the State Bar at age 21. She was popularly known as the “first woman” and the “youngest woman” among Michigan’s legal community. In fact, she was thought to be the youngest female lawyer in the entire nation.
Having been the target of much sexist criticism, Judge Neuenfelt fought the Dearborn corporation counsel, James Green, when he ruled that she had to use her married name during her election campaign in 1935. This ruling was met with Judge Neuenfelt’s bold remark, “I will run under any name I choose.” She was vindicated by the Attorney General on appeal.
After her death in 1981, Wayne County Circuit Judge James Montante said of Judge Neuenfelt, “She made her mark as a masterful, masterful judge. She was just a remarkable woman. She handled matters crystal clear. She knew where justice was.” #WLAM100