As we watch or listen to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, I want to finish off Women’s History Month by paying homage to powerful women in the law who have led our nation’s legal thinking – and broken through previously thick ceilings to get there.
If confirmed, which I hope she will be, Judge Jackson will serve as the first Black woman on the highest court in the land. This is groundbreaking but frankly, it shouldn’t be. That she is Black and a woman should not factor into her candidacy, nor should these details provide obstacles or barriers to her ascension.
One thing I loved and admired about the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was how she was able to develop an argument and get buy-in from people not directly affected by the issue at hand. Before she was even a judge, in her legal cases, she had a way of phrasing things that built compassion and showed the humanity behind a situation.
She made progress by not making something a “women’s issue,” but rather by showing how it was a human issue.
Similarly, Judge Jackson has already shown in her confirmation hearings that she can remain cool under pressure, and rise above the pettiness of politicians. When she was attacked by Senator Lindsey Graham about being too lenient against people convicted in child pornography cases, she responded brilliantly – by turning it into a big-picture issue and showcasing how Senator Graham only spotlighted a tiny detail in a complex and expansive case, where she applied the rules Congress set to decide the legal outcome.
The dignity of these impressive leading women in the law detailed below is something we as a nation need to reclaim. These are challenging times, and people on both sides of the aisle are far from their best behavior.
I hope judicial leaders can reset the tone of our nation by having open eyes, and strong constitutional basis, for how we move forward.
Notable Women In Law
Female lawyers comprise only 36% of the legal workforce, and yet some (like those mentioned below) shared their passion for the law, and built a foundation for a future filled with females at the highest level of the law. These are but some of the impressive women across American history who paved the way for women like me to build thriving legal careers.
Margaret Brent: In 1638, Brent became the first woman to practice law in colonial America. She was executor of the estate of Lord Calvert, governor of the Maryland colony. Brent brought more than 100 cases in Maryland Virginia courts.
Myra Bradwell: The founder of the Chicago Legal News in 1868, Bradwell wrote a column on “Law Relating to Women.” In 1873, she appealed to the Supreme Court in what may be the first sexual discrimination case in America.
Lemma Barkaloo: The first woman to apply to Columbia University Law School. (She was rejected in 1868.) She was accepted a year later to Washington University in St. Louis but ultimately quit after being harassed by her male classmates. She did eventually pass the Missouri bar exam, but tragically died in a typhoid epidemic in 1870, never actually practicing law.
Lettie Burlingame: Founder of The Equity Club at the University of Michigan (my alma mater!!) in 1886, a club for female law students and alumni. Eventually, it became the first professional organization for women lawyers.
Lyda Burton Conley: In 1910, Conley became the first Native American female lawyer in America. She taught herself the law to protect her tribe’s cemetery burial land in Huron Park Indian Cemetery from being sold. (She was not successful but set a precedent for later success.)
Genevieve Rose Cline: The first female federal judge in America in 1928.
Sarah Tilghman Hughes: The only woman in history to swear in a U.S. President, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As a district court judge in Texas, she was called upon to swear in then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Sarah Weddington: Only 26 years old when she argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, the youngest person ever to argue and win a Supreme Court case!
Sandra Day O’Connor: The first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Before that, O’Connor was a graduate of Stanford University, served two terms in the Arizona state senate and eventually served on the Supreme Court for 24 years.
Janet Reno: The first female Attorney General, appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: One of my favorite role models of all time and the second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. When she attended law school at Harvard University, she was one of 8 women in a class of 500.