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

Big Pledge, Little Interest

One Out of Four

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

No Room in the Old Boys' Club

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

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"

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

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

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

Caregiver and Law Student

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

Champion of Women's Rights

Second Female Nominated

Quiet Strength and Tenacity

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.

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Kornblut, Anne E. "Personal and Political Concerns in a Closely Held Decision." New York Times, 2 July 2005.
"Ruth Bader Ginsberg Biography" Oyez.com, retrieved 6 March 2009.
"Sandra Day O'Connor Biography"Oyez.com, retrieved 22 April 2009.
"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.