How the Federal Judges Emergency Affects WomenOctober 21, 2011
“Women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the judicial conferences better. That I’m a woman is part of it.”
— U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Did you know that for 140 years, there were no women in the federal judiciary? Think about it. It wasn’t until 1934 that Florence Allen, the first woman court of appeals judge, was appointed and confirmed to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. It took a recess appointment by President Harry Truman (a temporary appointment that does not require immediate consent from the Senate) to elevate Burnita Shelton Matthews, the first woman to serve on a U.S. district court, in 1950. Of course, we all know that Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1981.
The passage of Title IX in 1972 and women’s increased participation in the workforce has meant a dramatic increase in the number of women practicing law. Indeed, the proportion of women in law school has increased from 3.7 percent in 1963 to 44 percent in 2008.
So now that women serve at all levels of the judiciary, up to and including the Supreme Court, our work for equality is done. Right? Not even close. A 2010 study found that only 22 percent of all seats in federal-level courts and 26 percent of all seats in state-level courts were held by women and that no single state has come close to reaching equality between men and women in the judiciary.
Not only can the federal courts be a shield for civil rights laws like Title IX and the Equal Pay Act, but they’re often also the last, best hope for women who have experienced discrimination in education, employment, health care, and other aspects of their lives. A strong judiciary is critical to American women.
We need to do more to support women in the federal judiciary by making sure women are in the career pipeline for these appointments and that the men and women who are nominated respect the unique role that the federal courts play in protecting women’s rights. The time to fight for true equity on our nation’s courts is now!
To learn how you can help, visit our AAUW Action Alert page and help promote judicial equity by urging your senators to move forward with judicial confirmations!