Alumna Mary Louise Klas '52 honored by Minnesota Women Lawyers
The award is presented to an MWL member who expresses the highest ideals of the legal profession and who possesses the qualities exemplified by Myra Bradwell such as courage, perseverance, and leadership on issues of concern to women.
The Honorable Mary Louise Klas, Second Judicial District (ret.), addressed the College of St. Catherine Commencement exercises in December 2007. A longtime advocate for victims of domestic abuse, Klas told the graduating seniors "the glass ceiling "remains alive and well," but that her St. Kate's education "gave me the tools to work collaboratively with others."
When Mary Louise May Klas took the stage to deliver the College of St. Catherine Commencement address last Dec. 20, she stood on familiar ground. She had delivered the Commencement address in 1988, and she is an alumna, a volunteer and the mother of three alumnae and two employees.
Klas has accomplished much, including being the first woman appointed to the Ramsey County District Court Bench and working with Guild Incorporated, ISAIAH Domestic Violence Task Force, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and Minnesota Program Development.
No one would quibble if she were to choose to read The New York Times front to back every day instead of continuing her advocacy commitments. But, she is still on familiar ground -- all too familiar. "We are still killing women and children through acts of domestic violence, so we haven't yet achieved enough," she told the assembled graduates and their families.
Klas hopes to continue to work "with allies and partners to defeat pending legislation which would hurt battered women and children. It’s a constant battle: we quash one bad idea, another takes its place."
Klas is well aware of how much has changed since she graduated from the College of St. Catherine in 1952 and was one of three women in her William Mitchell College of Law class. The changes range from amusing to admirable.
Then, Sister St. Charles enforced a dress code that prohibited slacks and mandated nylon stockings. "If she spied bare legs, in a flash she whipped out of her office and swiftly pursued the miscreant with veil streaming in the breeze," Klas recalls. Now, students have opportunities to study abroad that Klas did not, and many "delicious-appearing offerings" appeal to her.
That which hasn't changed ranges from the inspiring to the shocking. Then, as now, St. Kate's students "want to stretch, grow and use all their God-given talents to be whatever they want to be. In 1948, the fact that we could also do so was the message we received at the College, and it was one of the most important messages I've carried in my heart and tried to live in my life."
Then, Klas continues, "I believe we knew that a glass ceiling existed, but we were determined to go out and bump our heads against it. And we did. Some of us struggled and climbed up its edges, but gender discrimination was alive and well.
"Today it remains alive and well. Though women have made certain gains, this is still a patriarchal society which must be radically changed before women, even those trained at St. Catherine's, can unfold their wings and fly as high as God intended."
A life of service
Helping others unfold their wings and fly high is a central theme in Klas' life. While running their two-attorney law practice, Mary Lou and Daniel Klas raised Mary Ellen, Kathleen, Barbara, John and Patricia. After a few years of general practice, Klas found a priority coming into focus. "The family law cases were on the desk," she recalls, "and the other files were on the credenza, behind the desk! That wasn't fair to the credenza contingent, so I soon limited my practice to family law. These cases involve human beings at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives.
"After I was appointed to the bench and began serving on family court, I was blown away by the nature and extent of domestic violence in Ramsey County, where I'd lived most of my life. I knew we had good laws, but I learned that the justice system was not using the laws to respond appropriately to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. I set out to change that. My St. Kate’s education gave me the tools to work collaboratively with others, within and without the justice system."
One of the Catholic Social Teachings speaks powerfully to Klas: "A basic moral test of any community or society is the way in which the most vulnerable members are faring." She told the December graduates that our society is failing that moral test. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44 in the United States, and in the 10 years ending in 2005, at least 274 women and 127 children were killed in Minnesota in acts of domestic violence.
"Speaking out, intervening, taking a risk is not always successful and not usually easy," Klas told the assembled crowd. "It's not peaceful work!”"
Klas continues to tread on familiar ground: the halls of justice, politics, church and community. She chairs the Domestic Violence Task Force of ISAIAH, a social justice network, and serves on the board of Minnesota Program Development, Inc., which works on changing systems to eliminate violence in the lives of women and their children. She attends Family Law Section meetings of the Minnesota State Bar Association and is involved in training at the Family Law Institute. This month she is traveling to Bulgaria with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, continuing consultation and learning about progress Bulgaria has made in laws against abuse and in training judges and police.
On Dec. 20, Klas told CSC graduates, "You do not walk across this stage alone. All the hopes, aspirations and love of your sacrificing support network walk alongside."
Yet, where hope and aspiration should be, fear and pain dominate the lives of victims of domestic abuse. "So long as women and children are at risk, I can't stop advocating for our civil and criminal justice systems to work appropriately."
Karen K. Hansen is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and musician.
By Karen K. Hansen
May 15, 2008
Contact Amy Gage, (651) 690-6829