Eighty-six-year-old Elizabeth Shackleford closes her law practice on August 21, 1981.

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 1/20/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20282

On August 21, 1981, Elizabeth Shackleford (1895-1989) closes her law practice for the final time, 59 years after passing the bar. She is 86. Shackleford has spent her entire career in Tacoma, as a lawyer and as a staffer for the nascent Internal Revenue Service, judge, civic activist, committed Methodist, and self-described "women's libber" (Ferguson). She has lent her support to the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Urban League, Tacoma's campaign for a council-manager form of government, expanded probation and public defender services, and a host of other organizations and issues.

An Independent Woman

Shackleford was born in Tacoma. Her parents, John (1862-1927) and Charlotte Shane Shackleford (1863-1944), were respectively a lawyer and a teacher, and they raised three daughters who all had professional careers. Elizabeth was the middle child. She was a co-valedictorian at Stadium High School in 1913 and a top student at College (later University) of Puget Sound, where she was a debate-team champion and wrote as her bachelor's thesis the first academic history of the Puyallup Indian Reservation.

The May 1918 issue of The Trail, the college's student publication, includes a prescient short story co-written by Elizabeth and her younger sister Martha, who also forged an independent life as a biology and botany professor. It features a young schoolteacher who buys a car on a whim. Over summer break she scandalizes her family by setting off on her own to make back the $90 cost by selling home-veterinary books to farmers in the region. None of the Shackleford sisters married and all had substantial careers.

Living the Law

After college graduation in 1918, Elizabeth worked for her father while studying for the bar exam. She was the only woman admitted to practice in Washington in 1922. Shackleford was appointed a Pierce County Justice of the Peace (later renamed District Court Judge) in 1955 and reelected to that position until she retired in 1967 and returned to private practice. She was at various times the only female judge and only female attorney practicing in Tacoma. She was also one of the few attorneys in Tacoma at the time to take black and Native American clients. She helped incorporate community organizations including the Tacoma Colored Women's Club and the Caballeros Social Club.

A member of the Tacoma Business and Professional Women's Club, she was named the club's Woman of the Year in 1961 and was the Northwest Soroptimist Woman of the Year in 1964. The year before her death she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Puget Sound, and also was given the Northwest Women's Law Center's Florence Merrick Award, named after one of the first women to graduate from the University of Washington Law School.

Shackleford's plans for retirement were modest, including trips to the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and the Nisqually Delta. She died in Des Moines, Washington, on September 3, 1989.


"Elizabeth Shackleford," Mathproblems.info website accessed January 16, 2017 (http://mathproblems.info/shack/hist/gen18/shackel.htm); The Trail (College of Puget Sound), Commencement Number, May 1918, copy available at University of Puget Sound website accessed January 15, 2017 (http://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/thetrail_all/136); Elizabeth Shackleford, "A History of the Puyallup Indian Reservation" (bachelor's thesis, College of Puget Sound, 1918), Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, Washington; "Honors Divided," Tacoma Times, May 21, 1913, p. 7; "Tacoma Girl Admitted to Bar," Tacoma News Tribune, January 28, 1922, p. 1; Don Tewkesbury, "Justice Court Judge Retires at Age 71," Tacoma News Tribune, January 8, 1967, p. A-8; Rod Cardwell, "Tacoma's Never Been Too Quiet," Tacoma News Tribune, November 3, 1969, p. A-8; Howard Ferguson, "Biographical Sketch," Tacoma News Tribune, October 17, 1974; "Shackleford Says Goodbye; Beloved Jurist Honored," Tacoma News Tribune, August 30, 1981; Patrick M. Steele, From the Beginning: A History of the Tacoma/Pierce County Bar Association (Tacoma: The Association, 1990), 97; "News of Former Classmates," The University of Puget Alumnus, January-March 1967, p. 18, copy available at University of Puget Sound website accessed January 16, 2017 (http://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/thealumnus_all/68).

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