September 21 – First Female Supreme Court Justice

Posted on September 21, 2016

With the craziness of politics these days, it's hard to believe that, on this date in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor was UNANIMOUSLY approved by the United States Senate to be a Supreme Court Justice.

Unanimously? I wouldn't have thought that the Senate could be unanimous on agreeing that oranges are fruits, even! I've become so used to everything being divisive, no compromise, and precious little “reaching across the aisle,” I've forgotten that there could be such a thing as a president nominating a judge to be justice and the entire Senate coming together to say, “Yes! Good choice! Let's do this!”

But that is pretty much what happened when President Ronald Reagan nominated O'Connor.

Apparently Reagan had promised to nominate the first female Supreme Court Justice. He chose a woman who had served as a deputy county attorney, Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, an Arizona State Senator and Majority Leader, and judge in a county superior court and the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

And, although Sandra Day O'Connor was a Republican when she served as State Senator and Majority Leader, she was deemed qualified for the position on the Supreme Court, smart and informed and fair, and all of the Democrats joined all of the Republicans to approve her!

I am not saying that such votes should be unanimous, always, but I like the fact that politics did use to be a bit more two-parties-working-together, back in the day. Because that means that there is hope it can be that way again!

Here is a super short timeline of women in the judiciary:

  • 1869 – Arabella Mansfield becomes the first licensed female lawyer in the U.S.
  • 1884 – Marilla Ricker becomes the first female U.S. Commissioner
  • 1907 – Catherine Waugh McCullock becomes the first female elected to serve as justice of the peace
  • 1914 – Georgia Bullock becomes a “woman judge” in charge of a court segregated by sex
  • 1920 – Florence Allen becomes the first female elected to position of general jurisdiction court
  • 1922 – Florence Allen becomes the first female state appellate judge
  • 1928 – Genevieve Rose Cline becomes the first female named to a federal bench of any sort (a U.S. Customs Court)
  • 1933 – Florence Allen becomes the first female federal appellate judge
  • 1949 – Burnita Shelton Matthews becomes the first female judge serving on a federal district court
  • 1981 – Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice

It's neat to realize that, although it took 132 years for women to be able to vote in the U.S. (counting from the first U.S. election in 1788 until 1920, the first election after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified), it only took 112 years for women to move from first being allowed to be a lawyer to becoming a Supreme Court Justice, and only 61 years from becoming any sort of judge in the U.S. to becoming a Supreme Court Justice! 

Today, women make up about a third of all judges and justices in the U.S., and about a third of the Supreme Court. 

Actually, the Supreme Court bench was precisely one-third female, not “about a third female,” until Justice Antonin Scalia died in February of 2016. Out of nine spots on the bench (Scalia's spot remains vacant), three are women: Ruth Baden Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. 

O'Connor retired from SCOTUS in 2006. She retired in order to spend time with her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and ended up dying in 2009. Since his death she has acted as a substitute judge, and she has worked to educate people about the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary and the Supreme Court in the Constitution and the U.S. government. She is writing a book and serves on the boards of several institutes. She even started her own non-profit organization that encourages people to make policy decisions through a process of informed discussion and critical analysis of evidence. 

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