Louise Hilma Ballerstedt Raggio, celebrated lawyer and women’s rights activist, was born on June 15, 1919, to Louis Ballerstedt and Hilma (Lindgren) Ballerstedt in Austin, Texas. Raised as the sole Ballerstedt child on a Central Texas farm, she graduated from Austin High School as valedictorian and entered the University of Texas in 1936 to train for a career as an educator. Upon her magna cum laude graduation in 1939, she completed a Rockefeller Fellowship in public administration at American University in Washington, D.C.
The following year Louise Ballerstedt accepted a National Youth Administration appointment and returned to Austin. In this position she met lawyer Grier Henry Raggio. After a brief courtship, the couple married on April 19, 1941, during Grier’s ongoing military training under the Selective Service Act of 1940. Due to his age, he was released from training and returned to his job with the United States Department of Agriculture, for which he and Louise moved around the state. The couple welcomed their first child, Grier Jr., in August 1942. By the fall of 1942 her husband was called back into service in the United States Army, and he was eventually deployed to the Pacific during World War II. During this time Louise lived at her family farm near Austin. After his discharge, the family relocated to Dallas where their second child, Thomas, was born in 1946. After the war, Grier Raggio was suspected of un-Americanism, and, while the charges had no foundation in reality, the suspicion severely affected Raggio’s government employment. In order to save the family financially, Louise Raggio enrolled in law school at night at Southern Methodist University in 1947. The couple welcomed their third child, Kenneth, in 1949. Raggio continued night law school and graduated as the only woman in her class in 1952; she passed the Texas Bar the same year.
Although completing law school as a married mother was rare, Louise Raggio further defied convention by continuing her career and was hired as an assistant district attorney to handle primarily child support and juvenile delinquency cases for Dallas County. In 1955 Raggio became, according to the Dallas Morning News, “probably the first woman prosecutor in a Dallas County Criminal Court.” At the beginning of her tenure as a prosecutor, she struck two men from a jury panel to create the first all-woman jury in the state shortly after women gained this constitutional right in Texas. Throughout her time as an assistant district attorney, Raggio encountered discrimination against married women. Coverture, a legal doctrine inherited from English law and carried forward through statutes and court cases, meant that a woman's legal identity was absorbed into that of her husband upon marriage. Most Texans followed this law and tradition even though Texas laws, taken from the Spanish, included wider rights for married women. This legal impediment severely affected married women’s ability to control their finances and other aspects of their personal lives, including custody of their children. The cases Raggio encountered at the district attorney’s office sparked a lifelong concern with legally guaranteeing equality for women.
In 1956 Raggio left the district attorney’s office to found a private law firm, eventually known as Raggio & Raggio, with her husband. Through the end of the decade, Raggio volunteered her time and spoke to various women’s organizations about the legal status of Texas women. She also established legal clinics to educate women about the laws of Texas. In 1960 Raggio became increasingly influential in the State Bar and eventually served as chairperson of the Family Law Section. In this position, she crafted the legislation that removed legal difference from married women in the state (see WOMEN AND THE LAW). The Marital Property Act of 1967 became an example for similar legislation throughout the nation and led to Raggio’s election in 1968 to the American Bar Association’s Committee on Family Law. For her service in guaranteeing legal equality for married women, the Texas State Bar awarded Raggio the Citation of Merit.
Raggio’s reputation as a legal architect for complex matters led to her next legal endeavor. Under her direction, the Family Law Section of the Texas Bar undertook a comprehensive revision of Texas family laws and created a global first—a complete Family Code of laws. The Family Code featured the Marital Property Act but also added significant new laws including a paternity statute. This statute meant that women could legally establish a parent-child relationship outside of marriage and receive child support payments to help raise a child previously deemed illegitimate. Other sections of the Family Code revised divorce and marriage laws of Texas and solidified adoption procedures in the state. Further, the code also stipulated procedures for handling minors who committed crimes and sought to provide care for children without an adult guardian. The Family Code was one of the most significant achievements of her legal career.
In the 1970s Raggio served on the Texas Commission on the Status of Women (see GOVERNOR’S COMMISSION FOR WOMEN) and became the first woman trustee of the Bar Foundation. In 1979 she was the first woman to be elected a director of the State Bar. In 1984 she was elected chairman of the Bar Foundation, a position that many male lawyers at the time did not feel comfortable entrusting to a woman. Under her leadership and guidance, significant advancements were made in areas of legal assistance to those who could not afford it, legal education of the public, and legal research and publications.
She was honored with Southern Methodist University’s Distinguished Alumni Award (1971) and the SMU Dedman School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award (1992). The American Bar Association gave its award for Family Law Service (1980) to Raggio, and she received the Business and Professional Women of Texas’s Woman of the Year Award (1985). She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985.
Louise Raggio died from natural causes in Dallas on January 23, 2011. Her commitment to women’s rights is memorialized through various means, including an endowed lecture series at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University and an eponymous award given by the Dallas Women Lawyers Association.