History of Women on the Supreme Court

It Took Nearly Two Centuries for First Female Justice to Join the Supreme Court

American lawyer Sandra Day O'Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981
American lawyer Sandra Day O'Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States first met on February 2, 1790 and heard its first case in 1792. It would take nearly two centuries -- another 189 years - - before this august yet single-sex body would more accurately reflect the composition of the nation it presided over with the advent of the court's first female associate justice.

In its 220-year history, only four women justices have served on the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor (1981-2005); Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-present); Sonia Sotomayor (2009-present) and former U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan (2010-present).

The latter two, nominated by President Barack Obama, each earned a distinct footnote in history. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 6, 2009, Sotomayor became the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. When Kagan was confirmed on August 5, 2010, she changed the gender composition of the court as the third woman to serve simultaneously. As of October 2010, the Supreme Court became one-third female for the first time in its history.

The Supreme Court's first two women hailed from significantly different ideological backgrounds. The court's first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, was nominated by a Republican president in 1981 and was regarded as a conservative pick. The second female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the choice of a Democratic president in 1993 and widely viewed as liberal.

The two women served together until O'Connor's retirement in 2005. Ginsburg remained as the lone female justice on the Supreme Court until Sonia Sotomayor took the bench in the fall of 2009.

Ginsburg's future as a justice remains uncertain; a February 2009 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer suggests she may need to step down if her health worsens.

Next page - How a Promise on the Campaign Trail Led to the First Female Justice

Although it's far from common knowledge, the appointment of the first female justice to the Supreme Court hinged on a pollster's findings and a former beau's support.


A President's Promise

According to Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, during the 1980 presidential race between Reagan, the Republican nominee, and Democratic President Jimmy Carter running for re-election, Reagan had a small lead over Carter as of mid-October. But Reagan's political strategist Stuart K. Spenser, concerned that support from female voters was slipping, wanted to close the perceived gender gap. The strategist and his boss discussed ways to win back women and the idea of naming a woman to the Supreme Court was born.


Big Pledge, Little Interest

Before any public announcement was made, some Reagan staffers questioned the decision. If the court's first vacancy was the position of chief justice, his pledge to nominate a woman would be controversial. Reagan hedged his bets; on October 14 in Los Angeles, he promised to appoint a woman to "one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration." With the continuing drama of the Iran hostage crisis and a shaky economy at the time, there was little media interest in his groundbreaking pledge.


One Out of Four

Reagan won the 1980 presidential election and in February 1981 Justice Potter Stewart indicated he would retire from the Supreme Court in June. Recalling his promise, Reagan reasserted his intent to name a woman to fill the upcoming vacancy. Attorney General William French Smith submitted the names of four women for consideration. One was Sandra Day O'Connor, who had served on the Arizona Court of Appeals less than two years.

She had fewer legal credentials than the other three women on the list.

But she had the backing of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist (whom she'd dated while both were at Stanford Law School) and the endorsement of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Smith liked her as well. As biographer Cannon notes, "Mr. Reagan never interviewed anyone else."

Next page - Sandra Day O'Connor: From Hardscrabble Childhood to Trailblazing Legislator

O'Connor's charm belied the hardscrabble life of her early years. Born March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O'Connor grew up on an isolated ranch in southeastern Arizona without electricity or running water, where cowboys taught her how to rope, ride, shoot, repair fences and drive a pickup. With no school nearby, O'Connor went to live with her maternal grandmother in El Paso to attend a private academy for girls, graduating at age 16. O'Conner credits her grandmother's influence as a factor in her own success.

An economics major at Stanford Univerity, she graduated magna cum laude in 1950.


Legal Wrangling Led to Law School

A legal dispute involving her family's ranch prompted her to go to Stanford Law School, where she finished the three-year program in two. There she met her future husband John Jay O'Connor III, made the Stanford Law Review and the legal honor society. Out of a class of 102, she graduated third behind William H. Rehnquist, whom she briefly dated and who would later become chief justice of the Supreme Court.


No Room in the Old Boys' Club

Despite her class ranking, no law firm in the state would hire so she went to work for San Mateo, California as a deputy county attorney.

When the Army drafter her husband she followed him to Frankfurt where she was a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster Corps. Afterward, they moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1957, where O'Connor again received little interest from established law firms, so she started to start her own with a partner.

She also became a mother, giving birth to three sons in six years and only stepping away from her practice after her second son was born.


From Mother to Majority Leader

During her five years of full-time motherhood she became involved with the Arizona Republican Party, and returned to work as an assistant state attorney general of Arizona.

Subsequently appointed state senator to fill a vacant seat, she was elected for two more terms and became majority leader - the first woman to do so in any state legislature in the U.S. She moved from the legislative branch to the judicial when she was elected to serve as judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974.

In 1979 she was nominated to the Arizona Court of Appeals and in 1981 to the Supreme Court.


Not "A Wasted Nomination"

Although her Senate confirmation was unanimous, she was criticized for her lack of federal judicial experience and constitutional knowledge. Conservatives regarded her nomination as a wasted one. Liberals believed she was not supportive of feminist issues. Yet over a 24-year career on the bench, she proved detractors on both sides wrong as she firmly established herself as a centrist and moderate Conservative who took a pragmatic approach to the most divisive issues of the day.

Her ascension to the highest court in the land also had one small side benefit to women - "Mr. Justice," the form of address previously used in the Supreme Court, was amended to the more gender-inclusive single word "Justice."


Health Concerns

In her seventh year on the bench, Justice O'Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, missing two weeks of work. She was so annoyed by the constant inquiries about her health that in 1990 she released a statement saying, "I am not sick. I am not bored. I am not resigning."

Her bout with cancer was an experience she did not publicly discuss for a number of years.

Finally, a speech in 1994 revealed her frustration with the attention the diagnosis brought, the ongoing scrutiny of her health and appearance, and the media speculation over the possibility of retirement.


A Husband's Illness

It was not her own health but the health of her husband that forced her to step down. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's, John Jay O'Connor III had become increasingly dependent on his wife as his disease progressed. It was not uncommon to find him resting in her chambers while she was at court. Married for over 50 years, the 75-year-old O'Connor announced her decision to retire on July 1, 2005, after 24 years on the Supreme Court in order to care for her husband.

Next page - Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Confronting Sex Discrimination Personally and Professionally

The second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton during his first term in office. She was his first appointment to the Court and took her seat on August 10, 1993. She had just turned 60 on March 15 of that year.


Motherless Daughter, Sisterless Sibling

Born in Brooklyn, NY, and nicknamed 'Kiki' by her mother, Ginsburg's childhood was marred by early losses. Her older sister died before she started school and her mother Cecelia, diagnosed with cancer during Ginsburg's high school years, died the day before her graduation. Although her mother left her $8000 for college tuition, Ginsburg earned enough scholarship money to give her inheritance to her father.

Caregiver and Law Student

Ginsburg attended Cornell where a student a year ahead of her named Martin would eventually become her husband. She graduated from Cornell in 1954 and was accepted at Harvard Law School, but found it extremely hostile to its few female students. One Harvard professor went so far as to ask the female students what it felt like to occupy places that could have gone to deserving men.

While in law school, she also raised a preschool daughter and supported her husband throughout his treatment for testicular cancer, attending his classes, taking notes, and even typing papers he dictated to her.

When Martin graduated and accepted a job at a New York law firm, she transferred to Columbia. Ginsburg made the law review at both schools she'd attended, and graduated at the top of her class from Columbia.


Rebuffed Yet Resilient

Although the dean of Harvard Law School recommended her for a clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter, he refused to interview her. She also found an equally unwelcoming attitude from the law firms she applied to. Ginsburg turned to academia and was a research associate at Columbia Law School until she joined the faculty at Rutgers University Law School (1963-1972). She later taught at Columbia Law School (1972-1980) where she was the first woman hired with tenure.


Champion of Women's Rights

Working with the American Civil Liberties Union, she helped launch the Women's Rights Project in 1971 and was the ACLU's General Counsel (1973-1980). During her time with the ACLU, she championed cases that helped establish constitutional protections against sex discrimination. Ginsburg eventually argued six cases before the Supreme Court.


Second Female Nominated

In 1980, Ginsburg was nominated by President Jimmy Carter as a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She served as a federal appeals judge until the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, when President Bill Clinton appointed her to fill the vacancy in the court.


Quiet Strength and Tenacity

Although often described as "a quiet presence on the court," Ginsburg has become more outspoken since the retirement of Justice O'Connor and the Supreme Court's move towards the right. She was pointed in her remarks after the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was upheld, hinting that the composition of the court had changed since the last case was heard restricting abortion regulation.

Health issues have dogged her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice although she has never missed a day on the bench. In 1999 she was treated for colon cancer; a decade later, she underwent surgery for early-stage pancreatic cancer on February 5, 2009.

See also - Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court's First Hispanic and Third Female

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"Sandra Day O'Connor: The reluctant justice." MSNBC.com, 1 July 2005.
"The Justices of the Supreme Court" Supremecourtus.gov, retrieved 6 March 2009.
"Times Topics: Ruth Bader Ginsberg" NYTimes.com, 5 February 2009.