Alumna of the Month February 2011

Ann Althouse ’81

Robert W. & Irma M. Arthur-Bascom Professor, University of Wisconsin Law School

You wouldn’t know it from reading her popular conservative blog, but Ann Althouse ’81 says she has often felt like something of an outsider. Her time at NYU School of Law was no exception: a painter with a bachelor of fine arts degree, she was married and five years older than many of her classmates. But she had a hunger to pursue the law. “I was starved for ideas that come in the form of language,” she says. “That side of me was not fulfilled by art.” 

Although she feared being “overmatched, out-of-place,” Ms. Althouse was clearly up for the intellectual challenge; she capped her law school experience by finishing tied for first in her class, even while becoming a mother. Ms. Althouse was inspired by two professors: Linda Silberman, now Martin Lipton Professor of Law, who taught civil procedure and today remembers Ms. Althouse as an “outstanding student,” and Sheila Birnbaum, now the co-head of the Mass Torts and Insurance Litigation Group at Skadden, Arps in New York, who taught her torts class. “I was able to picture myself doing what they did. Professor Birnbaum ended class one day by leaning forward and saying, ‘There’s a place for everyone in the law,’” recalls Ms. Althouse. “She was reaching past the general assumption that everyone would go on to work for a law firm. You could go into family law, or do something else. You should think about who you are, and find work that fits you.”

And so Ms. Althouse decided she wanted to go into academia, live in a nice college town and write about whatever she liked. First, however, she spent a year clerking for Judge Leonard B. Sand of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Then, pregnant with her second child, and wanting the experience of practicing at a law firm before turning to academia, she worked in the litigation department of the prominent New York-based firm Sullivan & Cromwell. “These experiences annealed me,” she says. “That is, I like to think I got enough of the real world of lawyers before I moved on to Wisconsin and the life of a law professor.”

Ms. Althouse made that move in 1984, joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin School of Law. Today, as the school’s Robert W. & Irma M. Arthur-Bascom Professor, Ms. Althouse has become a sought-after instructor as well as the undeniable queen of the blogosphere where law and politics meet pop culture. She teaches several courses on constitutional law and federal jurisdiction, and has written extensively on constitutional law, federalism, the jurisdiction of courts and other legal issues for law journals, as well as many opinion pieces for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media outlets. In 2002, the Wisconsin Law Alumni Association named her “Teacher of the Year.”

Inspired by a colleague’s blog of personal reflections, Ms. Althouse began posting on January 14, 2004 and hasn’t stopped since, posting several times daily to more than 800,000 readers per month. The professor says her experience teaching definitely affects her approach to blogging. “I’m good at finding things other people will want to talk about and setting up discussions. In that way, blogging has something in common with teaching,” says Ms. Althouse. “Even before I blogged, I wrote about the law in innovative forums. I’ve always thought law review articles should be shorter and more personal. Blogging really clicked with my aptitudes and interests.”

Althouse.blogspot.com is as eclectic as you might expect from a painter-turned-law-professor. "Ann is one of the most creative people I know, so it comes as little surprise that her blog has proven so popular,” says University of Wisconsin’s Law School Dean Ken Davis. Ms. Althouse quips and reacts to everything from pop culture (“Farewell to Teena Marie”) to her personal life (“The traditional Althouse Christmas photograph”) to news, law and politics—where her views can be unpredictable. For example, although she usually sides with conservatives (she’s a member of the Conservative Blog Advertising Network, which sells ads on her site), she’s pro-choice, and moderate on many issues. While she publicly backed George Bush in 2004, which brought thousands of new followers to her blog after she was singled out by the popular political blog, Instapundit.com, she supported Barack Obama in 2008. These days, she claims to be neither an opponent nor a fan of the president: “The economy is going badly, but it’s hard to say whose fault it is,” says Ms. Althouse.

The divorced mom of two adult sons took the bloggerati by surprise when she married one of her longtime commenters in 2009. Ms. Althouse, 60, whose idea of getting out of the house used to be hanging out in a café and “blogging in public,” now also enjoys traveling, hiking, biking and cross-country skiing with her husband, Laurence Meade, a garden designer. Her other passion: digital photography, which she says meshes well with blogging.

Indeed, Ms. Althouse’s blog followers are regularly treated to her own images of Madison, the college town she has called home for a quarter century. She says although she loves the “very lefty” city, she still feels a bit out of sync there, much as she did at NYU Law decades ago. However, she now embraces her outsider status. “I’m perceived as conservative online because I tend to react to things that annoy me—and I’m surrounded by liberals. I’m sure that if I lived among conservatives, I’d be tweaking them instead,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the opposite of a chameleon, trying to blend into the environment. I don’t mind standing out.”