Winston Churchill famously called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Those words also apply to University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Ann Althouse.
Althouse is the author of a nationally recognized blog — althouse.blogspot.com — read by more than 500,000 visitors a month, according to The New York Times.
It is ranked among the top legal blogs in the country, although Althouse is quick to say, “Some people would question whether it’s a law blog.”
Her willingness to comment on — and question — everything from legal issues to pop culture, from politics to gardening, is why her blog’s popularity extends well beyond the walls of academe.
The fact that she frequently espouses political opinions that run counter to the liberal orthodoxy in Madison and at the UW adds to the blog’s appeal.
Althouse’s growing national reputation has brought other opportunities. She has filled in for vacationing “Instapundit” blogger Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and one of the nation’s top 100 bloggers.
She is also a frequent contributor to bloggingheads.tv, an online discussion of politics, science and world events featuring noted professors and journalists.
George Mason University Law School even tried to lure her away because of her blog, and the UW Law School made a counter-offer to keep her — again, because of her blog.
Althouse’s loyal daily readers include a large number of conservatives, but her own politics are much harder to describe. “I consider myself a political moderate, but I am quite liberal on social issues and tough on national defense matters,” she says. For instance, she believes abortion is wrong, but supports a woman’s right to make that decision herself, without government interference.
She eschews labels. Asked by the online magazine Slate to write about “Who Gets To Be a Feminist?” she answered, in part: “You don’t get any special rights or privileges for being a feminist, so what difference does it make?”
She added: “Maybe you can stir up some action fighting over feminism, but I have a feeling that most people are, like me, bored by struggles over words when nothing happens as a result.”
Althouse, 60, grew up on the East Coast, earning her undergraduate degree in fine arts at the University of Michigan during the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
“I was not very interested in politics,” she remembers. “The Students for a Democratic Society annoyed me. I remember one night they were having a meeting in the room next to mine, and I went and knocked on the door and asked them, ‘Could you please plan the revolution tomorrow?’ I wanted to sleep.”
Althouse smiles as she describes herself as “a hippie-type person. We were artists. We were above politics.”
She married another artist, but as soon as the topic of children came up, they realized that one of them would have to get a “real” job to pay the bills. So Althouse enrolled at the New York University School of Law and graduated first in her class. After clerking for a federal judge, she went to work at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm. But she knew she really wanted to be a professor.
That does not mean she loved the NYU law school, which she describes as even more doctrinaire in its liberal leanings than the UW Law School.
Althouse, her husband and their two young sons arrived in Madison in 1984. She teaches classes in “Constitutional Law” and “Religion and the Constitution.”
“I love Madison. It’s a ‘real’ place. It has a sense of itself,” she says. “It is what it is, and it’s fun to watch.”
But she gets irked by the insistence of so many residents that “this is a town for the left and if you don’t think like us, you don’t belong here.”
Ironically, she says, “These are people who like to think of themselves as so kind and gentle.” She is amused by the “self-love involved when you think your policies are so right, nobody could possibly disagree with you.”
Althouse started writing her blog in 2004. She was divorced and an empty-nester. (Her two sons, now 30 and 28, live in New York City and Austin, Texas, respectively.) When she started blogging, she intended it as a creative outlet. She does not see herself as a journalist.
“I’m not so interested in marshaling the facts to support my point of view. I’m really interested in what other people say,” Althouse explains. She describes her daily posts (about 10 a day) as “a catalyst, a lubricant” for her readers. She often poses a series of questions to her readers rather than telling them what she thinks.
Althouse didn’t set out to attract a conservative audience. Her own politics are more complicated than that. After all, she voted for Barack Obama in 2008, in part because she felt that the Bush administration was fiscally irresponsible and in part because she believed John McCain had abandoned his conservative principles.
But she enjoys her followers — so much so that in 2008, she married one: Laurence Meade, a reader and frequent commenter who lived in Cincinnati. Meade’s relocation to Madison and the couple’s subsequent nuptials were reported in The New York Times and throughout the blogosphere. The Times headline read: “Commoner Captures Princess, Blog Version.”
Meade has since become a videographer, often filming events that Althouse posts on her blog. It was this past winter, during the occupation of the Capitol by anti-Gov. Scott Walker protesters, that their blogging partnership really bloomed.
Almost daily, they would visit the Capitol and walk around the Square, photographing the shouting, sign-waving protesters and occasionally engaging them in conversation. Often, Althouse posted no commentary at all, preferring to let the images speak for themselves.
Her video posts provided an honest look at the events, in far greater length and less censored images than TV news reports.
Althouse hopes her presence in the blogosphere and at the UW has made it easier for other conservatives to speak out. “I think I embolden some other people” at the university to express themselves, she explains. “The pressure to go along with liberal and left-wing ideas is so pervasive”
Political science professor Don Downs, who led the fight against the UW faculty speech codes, agrees. He says Althouse was a hard-working member of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Rights.
“Ann just blew me away with how smart she was and how she was she was able to articulate the issues in such an even-handed, graspable way,” he says.
“To put it in a nutshell,” Downs continues, “the university has a crying need for intellectual diversity, and she helps provide it.”
UW history professor John Sharpless has a different, if no less admiring point of view of Althouse: “She walks her own path,” he says. “She often takes contrary positions on issues that would challenge the usual conservative doctrines of, say, Rush Limbaugh or the Tea Party or Gov. Walker.”
Naturally, the hard left loathes Althouse. During the protests, one critic posted a particularly loathsome, obscenity-laden screed. “YOUR CITY OF MADISON PRIVILEGES HAVE BEEN REVOKED,” wrote a fellow named Jim Shankman.
“Did you really think this could go on forever? That you could sit on the steps of our house, walk the streets of our city, lie about us to strangers, tell gun-toting rednecks from out of state and the Northwoods how depraved and deserving of punishment we are all while maintaining plausible deniability for any of the consequences that your actions might cause?”
Shankman named restaurants favored by Althouse and Meade, and made some specific threats (none were carried out) before concluding “Now YOU are a target.”
In an incident this summer, Althouse was videotaping one of the daily “Solidarity Singalongs” at the State Capitol when a protester tried twice to rip the camera out of her hands. Police were called, but no charges were filed.
Most recently, Althouse has been writing extensively about the turmoil on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, again displaying the independent thought that so bothers those who would like to categorize her politics.
She has been critical of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley for exaggerating Justice David Prosser’s actions as a “chokehold.” She is outraged by the decision by one of the court’s liberal bloc to leak the incident to the press.
But then she says of Prosser, “There is such a thing as judicial temperament, and to somehow find yourself with your hands wrapped around another justice’s neck is not evidence of that.”
And she opposes suggestions that the incident is proof that judges should be selected, not elected. “To say, ‘Let’s make it nonpolitical’ is not possible to do,” Althouse says.
Having judges appointed just screens the politics from view. “Elections are more transparent, more cleansing,” than appointing judges, says Althouse.
“The irony for the liberals is that the people have shown, over and over again, that they want conservatives on the court,” she says.
Sunny Schubert is a Monona freelance writer and a former editorial writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.