CHEYENNE – In an upstairs lobby of the Wyoming Supreme Court Building, the portraits of past justices smile down from their frames.
Walking around the room and down the stairs, one striking similarity becomes apparent: They’re all men.
Leaders in the Equality State often tout the success of being the first state to officially allow women to vote, but it has a much less sterling reputation for allowing women to take the bench in the judiciary.
A new exhibit in the Wyoming Supreme Court aims to raise awareness about that fact and celebrate the accomplishments of women in the state.
On Feb. 12, “Equality Hall” will be officially open to the public in the Supreme Court Building.
The hallway between the building’s entrance and the judicial library will be lined on the north side with portraits of influential women in Wyoming history, including Grace Raymond Hebard, the first female member of the Wyoming State Bar, and Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor.
The south side of the hallway features facts about women in the law and shadowboxes with artifacts of female pioneers in the field.
An opening ceremony next month will include the unveiling of a portrait of Betty Kail, the first female county court and district court judge in the state.
Kail was a 1959 graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law and was appointed in 1981 as a county judge in Fremont County. She served there for two years before being appointed to be a judge in the Ninth Judicial District.
“Betty Kail was a pioneer in the field of law for Wyoming women. … Her no-nonsense approach and graciousness from the bench earned her respect from the legal community,” Eydie Trautwein, director of legal resources and judicial education for the Wyoming Supreme Court, wrote in an email.
Next to Kail hangs a portrait of Marilyn Kite, the first female justice and chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court.
She sat on the bench from 2000-14.
Kite previously dedicated one wall to the portraits of women. But current Supreme Court Justice Kate Fox has helped expand the exhibit to honor more women and provide more information.
“We wanted to honor our history, but to also give the message there’s much to be done,” Fox said.
In 2016, just 19 percent of judges in Wyoming were women, according to data included in a gender diversity survey in a national directory of judges. Nationwide, 31 percent of state judges were female, according to the survey.
But some progress has been made.
Over the past four years, roughly 50 percent of judicial appointees have been women – a big shift from the past, Wyoming Chief Justice E. James Burke said Wednesday.
And Gov. Matt Mead earlier this year appointed another woman to the Supreme Court bench, Lynne Boomgaarden.
Fox said although she never experienced the overt sexism some women have described in a growing #MeToo movement about harassment or assault in the workplace, she often had to think about the way she was perceived by juries or clients in ways men perhaps didn’t have to.
“Maybe that’s becoming less true as time goes on and there are more female trial attorneys, but those are all things that are going through the back of your mind,” she said. “As a lawyer, your job is to get your message across and so you don’t want it obstructed by some judgment that you’re getting because you’re a woman.”
Fox often speaks to school groups or others to serve as an example of what women can achieve, she said.
“I just think that girls need to see women in positions like the Supreme Court,” Fox said. “Whether they want to be judges or not, just to know that women can be in leadership I think is important.”