Linda Greenhouse: Breaking into the Supreme Court's mens club

Only four women have served on the U.S. Supreme Court since its its establishment in 1789. From left: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (retired), Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan. Photo by Steve Petteway / U.S. Supreme Court

Journalist and writer Linda Greenhouse reflects on the impact and influence of Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court:
Today’s 20- and 30-somethings who take women’s progress for granted might be surprised to learn that barely three years before President Ronald Reagan used his first of four Supreme Court vacancies to fulfill a campaign promise to name a woman to the court, the very notion of a female Supreme Court justice was played for laughs in a Broadway comedy called “First Monday in October.” And they might be even more surprised to know that before the advent of President Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1977, only eight women had ever sat on a federal court — any federal court.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had named one, Florence Ellinwood Allen, followed 15 years later by President Harry Truman’s appointment of the second, Burnita Shelton Matthews. Thirteen more years passed before President John F. Kennedy named Sarah Tilghman Hughes to the Federal District Court bench in Dallas; the next year, on Nov. 22, 1963, Judge Hughes entered the history books when she administered the presidential oath of office to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Johnson named three women to federal courts. Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford named one apiece. President Carter took the revolutionary step of naming 40 — roughly one in six of his 259 judicial appointments, enabled by Congress’s expansion of the federal bench in 1978 by nearly one-third, adding 151 judgeships with the expectation that they would be filled promptly. (President Obama has managed to get 138 women confirmed to the federal courts; they make up 42 percent of his successful judicial nominations.)

So what did it mean when Sandra Day O’Connor joined the exclusive men’s club where “Mr. Justice” had been the required appellation until just months before her nomination, when the justices, perhaps sensing that change was inevitable or maybe just wishing to sound a little less stuffy, voted in conference in a superb accident of timing to drop the “Mr.” and to refer to each other simply as “Justice?”

Get the Story:
When Sandra Day O’Connor Broke Into the Men’s Club (The New York Times 8/4)

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