“It’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation,” said President Biden, in announcing his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Jackson — who most recently served as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and has now been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a Supreme Court justice — will be the first Black woman and the sixth woman to join the nine-member court, adding to the legacy of impressive female justices.
In 1981, the late Sandra Day O’Connor made history when she became the first woman appointed to the highest court in the U.S., which had assembled for the first time two centuries earlier.
Presidents throughout the 20th century had considered appointing a woman to the court. President Richard Nixon came close, but his plan was thwarted after the chief justice at the time threatened to resign if a woman was nominated. Legal organizations also objected to nominating a woman.
After President Ronald Reagan named O’Connor to the court, she famously said, “A wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion.” And during her 25 years on the Supreme Court, she wielded significant influence.
She cast the decisive vote in a ruling that allows the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take steps to reduce air pollution when a state fails to act. In another example, she swayed the court to allow people the right to a second doctor’s opinion in certain cases in which they have been denied treatment.
In written opinions, O’Connor avoided sweeping statements that might have “broad and perhaps unpredictable implications,” according to Carolyn Shapiro, co-director of Chicago-Kent’s Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States.
It was in 1993 that the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female justice to be named to the highest court. Ginsburg’s legacy lives on through landmark cases involving the rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQI+ people and women. She wrote a landmark 1996 decision for the court when it decided that the Virginia Military Institute, a public university, had to end its male-only admissions policy.
Sonia Sotomayor, who was raised in public housing primarily by a single mother, says the American legal drama Perry Mason inspired her to pursue a career in law. Sotomayor graduated from Ivy League universities and served on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before being named to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2009. She is the first Hispanic person to serve on the court.
Sotomayor has become a force on the court and is known for her scathing dissents. “Dissents like hers are important,” Shapiro says. “They speak to the future, but they also speak to and for those whose voices are often muffled or silenced.”
The other two female justices serving on the court are Elena Kagan, nominated by Obama in 2010, and Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by President Donald Trump in 2020. Both women served as law clerks at the Supreme Court early in their careers — Kagan for the late Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first Black justice, and Barrett for the late Antonin Scalia.
Before her stint as a clerk, Kagan was a student editor of the Harvard Law Review. She would later work for Harvard as dean of its law school. In 2009, Obama named her as solicitor general of the United States, making her the first woman to argue government cases before the Supreme Court. “She is the sharpest questioner on the bench,” Shapiro says. “She always gets directly to the heart of the issue on the case.”
As the court’s youngest justice at 50 years old, Barrett has a background as a distinguished professor and judge. Her teaching and scholarship at Notre Dame Law School — her alma mater — centered on the federal courts and constitutional law.
From the time O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court to today, the share of women in U.S. law schools has grown by 21%. In fact, today, more women than men are enrolled. Jackson will be the fourth woman on the current court, bringing it close to gender parity and offering law students one more impressive role model.
This article is by freelance writer Holly Rosenkrantz. Staff writer Lenore Adkins contributed.