AAUW’s Original Binders Full of WomenSeptember 25, 2013
At the 1981 centennial convention in Boston, AAUW embarked upon our second century of advancing equity for women. The year turned out to be a historic one for an effort that AAUW had been working toward for decades. At the convention, AAUW President Mary Grefe wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan. During his campaign, Reagan had said promising things about appointing a woman to the Supreme Court. Grefe explained her purpose: “The AAUW founded 100 years ago to promote equity and advancement for college-educated women believes that with over 700 women judges serving on federal and state courts, abundant evidence exists of highly qualified women to serve on the highest court of the land. We therefore recommend that you consider the following exceptionally qualified women for nomination.”
Grefe listed several recommendations: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Shirley Abrahamson, to name just a few. AAUW was thrilled when, two months later, on September 23, Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first woman on the Supreme Court. (Though O’Connor wasn’t on AAUW’s radar before her nomination, she was a candidate AAUW supported.)
This practice of submitting lists of qualified women candidates for important jobs was not new. For decades, AAUW compiled such catalogs and submitted them to decision makers. Some of the women on the lists are familiar names, some not. But all were experienced and excelled in their fields. The lists are lengthy, so massive in fact that they spill out of folders and jam-pack boxes in our archives. AAUW’s Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women (later renamed the Status of Women Committee) began the effort in earnest in the 1930s. The project was called Rosters of Women Qualified for Public Service (sounds a lot like the “binders full of women” idea that came up in the presidential debates). In a lengthy process, state committee chairs researched the women, vetted their qualifications, and submitted the names.
So by the time a woman was finally appointed to the Supreme Court, AAUW had been working toward that goal for more than half a century! Beginning in 1930, AAUW urged the appointment of Florence Ellinwood Allen, an early suffragist, graduate of Western Reserve University, and AAUW member. Allen was the first woman elected as judge of the court of common pleas for Cuyahoga County, Ohio (1921–26). She advanced rapidly, becoming the first woman to serve on a state supreme court (in Ohio) and the first woman to serve as a federal judge (the U.S. Court of Appeals). In 1939, AAUW leaders recommended her to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was seeking to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat left by Louis Brandeis. AAUW felt a sense of urgency, realizing that not only could this be Roosevelt’s last appointment but also that the next guy in office might not be so inclined.
AAUW had known about Allen for a long time. She was a member, and AAUW had been singing her praises for at least a decade. The AAUW Journal said that Allen “is winning much honor and credit not only for herself but for the logical mind of woman” (AAUW Journal, volume 16(2)). Other women’s groups also urged Allen’s appointment. Unfortunately, as you have probably figured out by now, it wasn’t a successful endeavor. Roosevelt chose William O. Douglas instead.
Efforts to recommend women for the Supreme Court were not uncommon in the 1930s. A Christian Science Monitor article called “A Woman on the Supreme Bench?” (March 12, 1930) argued, “In all of the lists of eminent jurists thus far suggested for the vacant place on the Supreme Court, there has been a missing element. Not one newspaper or any individual commentator mentioned the name of a woman. We do suggest that the time has come for the presence of a woman jurist upon the supreme bench, and it must be recognized as an altogether normal and likely development.”
What do you think? Has that time come when the appointment of women is seen as a “normal and likely development”? Since 1981, three more women have been appointed to the Supreme Court: Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. Let’s see what the future holds.