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Judging Our Future: Supreme Women Move Up

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes


In my lifetime, this country has seen dramatic changes with regard to women on the U.S. Supreme Court bench. In a speech I gave 40 years ago on the participation of American women in professional and political life, I said, “No woman sits on the [U.S.] Supreme Court bench.”

Seven years after that speech, in late 1977, a play opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on its way to Broadway; it was later turned into a movie. It was called First Monday in October, and its plot turned on the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court. The notion was regarded as inherently comic, and it was played for laughs. At that time, a woman named Sandra Day O’Connor was sitting as an appellate judge in Phoenix, Arizona.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan selected Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. She was later joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was named by President Bill Clinton and took her seat in 1993. Justice O’Connor retired in 2006.

In May 2009, President Barack Obama named Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court bench. She took her seat later that year, becoming the first Latina on the bench.

A year after nominating Justice Sotomayor, President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and, after Senate confirmation, she was seated in August 2010.

The U.S. Supreme Court first assembled to organize itself on February 2, 1790, in New York City, then the nation’s capital. In 1792, the justices heard and decided their first case.

Since Elena Kagan took her seat on the Supreme Court on October 4, 2010, for the first time in this country’s history, three of our nine Supreme Court justices have been women. Justice Kagan is the fourth woman on the bench out of the 112 justices we have had so far.

So women have gone from zero percent representation during the Court’s first 191 years to 33 percent in the past 30 years.

We also have statistics on the percentage of women judges at lower federal court and state court levels. According to a spring 2010 report by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society within the Graduate School of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, State University of New York, women accounted for 22 percent of all federal judgeships, including 28 percent of the active judges in U.S. circuit courts.

On the state level, the same study found that 26 percent of all state judgeships were held by women.

According to Equal Representation in Government and Democracy, as of July 12, 2009, 31 percent of the total number of justices on all of the states’ highest courts combined were women. In fact, in 21 states the numbers of men and women on the highest courts were about equal.

An amazing statistic is that 20 of our state supreme courts—38 percent—were headed by female chief justices in 2010. (There are 52 state supreme courts because Texas and Oklahoma have two supreme courts each, one for criminal appeals and one for civil cases.)

It’s interesting to look at information on women on the supreme courts of other countries. Unfortunately, we don’t have comprehensive information, but the International Association of Women Judges has advised me that a number of countries are ahead of the U.S. with regard to women on their supreme courts.

Currently, the chief justices of Israel, Canada, Ghana, Rwanda and Sierra Leone are women, and Brazil and Panama have had women as their chief justices in the past.

We don’t know how long Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will remain on the Court. She’ll be 78 years old this coming March and is currently our oldest Supreme Court justice. In 1999, she had surgery for colon cancer and in 2009 she had surgery for pancreatic cancer.

On the other hand, in April 2009, she told law students at a symposium at Ohio State University that she wanted to match the tenure of Justice Louis Brandeis, who served for more than two decades and retired at the age of 82. In an August 3, 2010, talk with the Associated Press, she said she was looking forward to being one of three women on the high court for the foreseeable future and had no plans to retire anytime soon.

She is, of course, a feminist icon who spent a considerable portion of her career as an advocate for women’s rights. In 2009, Forbes magazine named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

The words of an anonymous African American slave preacher that Dr. Martin Luther King quoted on more than one occasion are equally true with regard to American women judges: “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

December 21, 2010

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Sonia Pressman Fuentes, who lives in Sarasota, Florida, is a feminist activist, writer and public speaker. She was a founder of NOW and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). She is the author of a memoir, "Eat First—You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter." Read more at her website.

Also see Women's Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Feminist Thoughts by the Editors in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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