success is not on your own terms,
if it looks good to the world
but does not feel good in your heart,
it is not
success at all."
- Anna Quindlen
The first thing that strikes you about Angela Bartell is that she seems like someone you’ve known for a long
She welcomes you into her beautiful prairie style home, designed by a protégée of Frank Lloyd Wright, and introduces
you to her miniature dachshund, Zigfrey Von Lederhosen. Dressed in a comfortable but fashionable sweats, she offers you a
cup of herbal tea and sits next to you on the couch for a chat.
You feel a bit intimidated in her presence – after all, this is a highly accomplished woman, a true mover and
shaker in Madison
and in Wisconsin. A judge for 25 years, an instructor, writer,
social activist, community leader, public speaker, and mother of five, Bartell could easily seem inaccessible. But instead,
she is warm. You feel like a neighbor who’s dropped by for a visit.
“Even as a girl, I didn’t like the idea of ‘women’s work,’” she tells you. “That
seemed silly to me.”
Originally of Glendale, a suburb of Milwaukee,
Bartell was raised by parents who “believed their daughters could do anything they set their minds to.” Bartell
entered the public eye early – she was both Miss North
Shore and Miss Wisconsin
(honors she doesn’t mention; there have been so many since).
She admits that she initially became interested in the law because Jeffrey, who would later become her husband, was
studying law. At the University of Wisconsin,
she says, “I started attending law classes because I was interested in him. But then I got interested in the law. I talked to women law professors to
learn about their careers – and there were very few women in law at the time. I may have been drawn to law because it
was on the cutting end of societal change. Law was a new frontier.”
Interestingly, she points out, the field of law became accessible to women earlier than many other fields. This was
because the very women who were interested in societal change were the types of women attracted to law. “There were
well-meaning people that had doubts – could women deal with the adversarial nature of law? Could they make the commitment?” she recalls. (If you’ve watched even one episode of “The Practice,”
you know that this is no longer the stereotype.)
“We really had to prove ourselves,” she says of women in traditionally male fields. “In the 1960s
and 1970s there was a period of social activism and a change in male and female roles. I’m proud to have been there.
It’s truly a different world now.”
The walls of Bartell’s home are covered with poster-sized family portraits of Bartell, her husband Jeffrey (a
business lawyer at Quarles & Brady Law Firm), and their five children, now adults. Looking at the photos, you are amazed
that Bartell managed to raise five children at the same time as she was busting down walls of gender and getting criminals
off the street.
Bartell seems to take her life in stride, as if it wasn’t exceptional. Her first job out of college was as clerk
for the young lawyer James Doyle. “I attribute the role model of a judge to him,” she says. “I admire him
– he is patient and intelligent. I revered him so much. I wanted to contribute like he did.”
Bartell spent one year as a clerk and six years as an attorney in private practice for the firm that is now LaFolette,
Godfrey & Kahn. Then, in 1978, she became a judge. The process was unusually speedy, especially given that she was the
first woman judge in the district, and one of the first women on the Wisconsin trial bench.
It helped that Acting Governor Martin Schriber was in favor of female judges.
Bartell’s resume has the words “first woman” a number of times: first woman Chief Judge of the Judicial
Administration District; first woman Rotarian in Wisconsin; first woman member of the Criminal or Civil Jury Instruction Committee;
first woman law clerk in the Western District of Wisconsin. Always a bit before
her time, she simply saw no reason why gender should be the issue that it was. As the first woman Rotarian (in 1987), she
had already tried joining the Jaycees in the 1970s when it, too, was for men only. “I was pushing the parameters and
at the time, it was too early to push,” she admits.
Bartell argued that excluding women from service clubs “prevented them from having significant networking in
their professional lives.” As soon as the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Rotarians had to admit women, she
joined. She is now the Madison Chapter’s incoming president. Bartell has done a great deal for Madison: she served on the United Way
board and the Children’s Theatre of Madison board, and has been president of Friends Channel 21, among “lots of
professional things.” She also edited the Wisconsin Judicial Bench Book, which provides
outlines for new judges to understand the basics.
As a judge, Bartell has heard all sorts of cases, but the majority have been criminal. She refers to law as “a
very people-intensive job.” The manner in which she runs her courtroom explains why she seemed so friendly and accessible
during the visit: “I try to explain things to people in terms they can understand. I talk plainly to people.”
Bartell describes herself as “passionate about my work and the court I want to run. I take time to listen, to
really hear what parties have to say, even though I have a heavy caseload. Common law should reflect common sense.” She admits that sentencing can be difficult. “I look at behaviors that suggest
a person has the ability to stabilize his life,” she says. “I’m trying to find out if they have a sincerity
about rehabilitation. I have no special powers … There are people who have done some terrible things. It can take the
wisdom of Solomon to decide what to do – you can’t just lock everybody up.”
The decisions Bartell makes in court impact people directly and immediately. The average person might go crazy second-guessing
herself after making a decision with such impact, but Bartell is able to avoid that. “I have an ability to focus 100%
on the problem of the moment,” she says. “I listen carefully the first time. Then I can go on without second-guessing myself.”
Bartell attributes her parenting on her ability to focus as well. “I also gave my children 100%,” she says.
She must have done something right. Jessica, 28, is a physician; Carey, 27, is an attorney; Chad,
23, is a law student; and twins Dana and Nicholas, 21, are students in New York City.
“I remember some very challenging times,” she says of her children’s youth. “But my husband
was a liberated man. He was a partner in all our childrens’ needs – we were a team. Whoever had the available
time had to respond. He was a great dad and partner.”
As a criminal judge, Bartell knew only too well the kinds of things that could befall her children. “I was, like
all mothers, ‘the worst mother in the world’ – which I take as a compliment,” she says. “They
would say, ‘Mom, you know all the bad things that could happen!’ When they would ask about things – ‘Why
can’t you just steal some candy?’ – I used those moments. You can do anything you want to do; it’s
a matter of choices. That doesn’t mean those things are right. I was never silent about appropriate choices. And ‘other
people’s parents’ meant nothing to me!”
Although she and her husband were strict, she emphasizes, “They got a lot of, lot of love. Their world revolved
around our family.” Bartell’s experience as a mother has shaped some of her community activism. Issues she feels
strongly about include child care, reading readiness, and parent training, “things that make good families. I believe
very strongly that early experiences affect your entire life.”
Having lived the equivalent of many lifetimes in just one, Bartell has some advice for younger women who are just testing
out their wings. “I’ve seen too many people rush too quickly into decisions,” she says. “You need
to gather information and make rational, mindful decisions rather than emotional ones. Then don’t look back. If you are going to change your direction, look forward
“Conserve your energy,” she says. “We all have a certain amount of life force. Life is so demanding
– you can’t apply it to the past or use it on remorse.”