The People's Court
July 7 marks the 28th anniversary of the first female Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice O’Connor was appointed by President Ronald Regan in 1981 and served on the Court until she retired in 2006.
Although the Court 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 219-year history, only two women justices have served on the Supreme Court, although President Barack Obama is hoping to add a third with his May 26, 2009 nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to fill the seat being vacated by Justice David Souter.
The Supreme Court's only women have 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 actions of Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg, as well as Judge Sotomayor serving on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, have had tremendous impacts on women and women’s rights in general and the perceptions of women as lawyers and judges. Justice Ginsburg, before being appointed to the Supreme Court, helped establish constitutional protections against sex discrimination and remains a strong advocate of women’s rights.
Despite the gains made in recent years by women in the legal profession and the judiciary, true equality has not been reached. Women currently comprise only 28 percent of those in the legal profession and 77 percent of women practicing law began after 1970. But over half of all law students are women and the number of women active as lawyers and judges has been steadily increasing. The anniversary of Sandra Day O’Connor's nomination o the Supreme Court should be celebrated for the tremendous advancements women have made in the legal profession. But we cannot forget that more work needs to be done in order to secure true equality for women as lawyers and judges.
»Access the Library of Congress' collection of legal decisions by the Court's two women
»View a slideshow of women who could be nominated in the future
»Read more about why women on the Court matter