March is Women’s History Month and it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the barriers that women have overcome and to celebrate what they have accomplished throughout our nation’s history. Our nation has come a long way since its founding when women were not allowed to own property or to vote. As we reflect on the history of women in our nation, we also should take a close look at where women are today.
This year, for the first time in our nation’s history, we have three women serving on the Supreme Court of the United States. Established in 1789 by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court was exclusively a male province for nearly two centuries. The first woman to break that barrier was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who was appointed to the Court in 1981. Since then, three other women have been appointed to the Court: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, and Elena Kagan in 2010.
In a 2009 New York Times interview
, Justice Ginsburg talked about being a woman on the Supreme Court: “It’s almost like being back in law school in 1956, when there were nine of us in a class of over 500, so that meant most sections had just two women, and you felt that every eye was on you. Every time you went to answer a question, you were answering for your entire sex. It may not have been true, but certainly you felt that way. You were different and the object of curiosity.”
Her description makes clear that succeeding in the legal world at that time was not easy. Graduating from Columbia Law School and tied for first in the class, she was turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship by Justice Felix Frankfurter who would only consider a male clerk. Because of the discrimination she encountered, she became a trailblazer for ending discrimination. She battled for maternity leave rights for New Jersey school teachers, and she handled sex discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), later becoming co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 111th Congress, I was privileged to participate in the confirmation hearings of both Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. During days of questioning, these women spoke eloquently of their backgrounds, their educations and their struggles to succeed in what was often a male-dominated field.
Sonia Sotomayor’s life is a true American story and an inspiration for Hispanic Americans. Born in New York, to a Puerto Rican family, she grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx. She graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University and attended Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Law Review. Nominated to the bench by both Democrats and Republicans, she served for 17 years in the federal judiciary before her nomination to the Supreme Court.
Elena Kagan broke the “glass ceiling” for women in both the academic and legal fields. After graduating with high honors from both Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she went on to clerk for the federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. She served in the Clinton Administration as an Associate White House Counsel and as a policy advisor. In 2003, Kagan became the first female dean of Harvard Law School, and, in 2009, she became the first female Solicitor General of the United States.
I have two granddaughters and I can only thank the women of today, such as Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, who have expanded future opportunities for young women of tomorrow. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we pause to dream about the future and what American women will achieve in the years to come.