Today marks the anniversary of one of the most important moments in American judicial history: July 7, 1981, exactly 35 years ago, Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice, was nominated for her position. Nowadays, we're used to seeing Day O'Connor's successors — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — play major roles in U.S. legal history; but American women have only had access to the federal court for a bewilderingly short period of time. Understanding the history of women in the Supreme Court is necessary to see just how groundbreaking the four women who made the leap to the court really are.
To put this all into context, 112 Supreme Court Justices have served over the course of the Supreme Court's existence. Four of them have been women. That's about 3.5 percent —not good enough, considering that women comprise over half the US population and have been able to vote since 1922 (a right, as it happens, made legal by the Supreme Court).
Here are seven important moments in the history of female Supreme Court justices, just in case you were wondering exactly how badass they all are (answer: extremely badass).
1928: Genevieve Rose Cline Becomes The First Female U.S. Federal Judge
In 1928, Genevieve Rose Cline, an activist and lawyer who'd been admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1921, was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge for a position as Judge of the United States Customs Court. Her appointment was protested by other judges, largely on the basis of her gender — but Cline was allowed to proceed. This made her the first woman named to the federal judiciary, and she served in her prestigious position for 25 years.
After Cline came the other judiciary "way-pavers", as Ruth Bader Ginsburg called them — like Florence Allen (who was the first woman to serve on a state Supreme Court, and became a judge for the Federal Court Of Appeals in 1943) to Mary Honor Donlon, who filled the position vacated by Cline when she retired in 1955.
1980: Reagan Promises A Female Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor's path to the Supreme Court was set in motion by a campaign promise that Ronald Reagan made as he ran for President in 1980: he pledged to finally put a woman on the Supreme Court. Once elected, he stuck to his word, saying in a press conference in 1981, “I made a commitment that one of my first appointments to the Supreme Court vacancy would be the most qualified woman that I could possibly find. Now, this is not to say that I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women nor to future generations of all Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by decisions of the court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards that I demand of all court appointees. I have identified such a person.” O'Connor's Senate hearing in 1981 to vote on her nomination yielded a 99-0 vote to confirm her.
1996: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Authors The Decision For "United States v. Virginia"
There have been many brilliant episodes in the careers of all four female Supreme Court justices, but one for the annals was the authoring of the decision in the case "United States v. Virginia" by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, who was nominated by Bill Clinton and took her oath in 1993, made history in 1996 as the sole author of a majority decision on gender equality, in which she and other justices decided that the state of Virginia's decision to bar women from attending the Virginia Military Institute was unconstitutional.
Bader Ginsburg, in one of her many eloquent statements as a justice, wrote in the decision, "Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities."
2007: Ginsburg Fiercely Dissents On Equal Pay
One of Ginsburg's other incredibly important moments on the Supreme Court came in 2007, when her dissent on an equal pay case was so fierce that she chose to read her opinion aloud to the press, from her position on the court bench. The case — in which Lillly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear, after finding out a man was earning more than her for the same job — was thrown out by the Supreme Court because Ledbetter didn't file 180 days after her discovery. But Ginsburg noted in her dissent that "pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments," and that the law needed to be amended. She and President Obama worked together on the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, which he signed into law in 2009.
May 2009: Sonia Sotomayor Becomes First Latina On The Supreme Court
Sonia Sotomayor's 1999 nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama wasn't the first time she'd been picked for notice by a President. She was nominated as a U.S. District Court Judge by George H. W. Bush (on the recommendation of Ted Kennedy) in 1992, and Bill Clinton nominated her for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997. But her 2009 nomination represented one of the biggest moments yet in the history of female Supreme Court Justices — because Sotomayor was not only a woman, but a woman of color. In 2001, Sotomayor referred to this explicitly in a speech. "I would hope," she said at the time, "that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
August 2009: Elena Kagan Becomes Third Female Sitting Supreme Court Justice
2009 was a bumper year for female Supreme Court justices: with the rapid nomination and confirmation of Elena Kagan, only two months after she was nominated to the role of solicitor general, women now made up a full third of the Supreme Court bench for the first time ever. Kagan's built a reputation as the "cool" judge — she's the youngest member of the court, and has referenced everything from Dr. Seuss to Star Wars to Zoolander in her opinions (she once produced a judgement for Marvel Entertainment filled with Spiderman references). And despite her liberal credentials, she revealed in 2013 that she and the now-late arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia were hunting partners.
2014: RBG Declares That Nine Women On The Supreme Court Will Be "Enough"
What's next for the future of female Supreme Court Justices? Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fully living up to her nickname "the Notorious RBG," made an extremely salient point on the topic during a 2014 NPR interview. Asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be, in her opinion, "enough," Bader Ginsberg gave her now-legendary reply: "When there are nine." Fist-pumps for everybody. “For most of the country’s history," Ginsburg elaborated, "there were nine and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange." An all-female Supreme Court may not be within reach immediately, but O'Connor, Kagan, Ginsburg and Sotomayor have made it seem like much more than a pipe dream.