Pioneering Women in the Law
Writing a blog on Women’s Day is both an honor and a serious challenge. The available topics are endless since the issues affecting women are universal, yet unique. I could talk about where we’re headed – to the White House by electing a woman as our next President? Or to space again as future female astronauts follow in the footsteps of Christina Koch and Jessica Meir who recently conducted the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station? I could talk about issues like equal pay, gender equality in the workplace, sexual harassment or reproductive rights. But, as I thought about what to write, my mind went to women who paved the way and, more specifically, women who paved the way through the law. For women who care about the future of women, we should know about the pioneering women who forged the path many now follow and allow their insight and determination to guide us forward.
We know that women were granted the right to vote with the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (a mere 144 years after our country was founded), but do you know the story of Virginia Minor?
Mrs. Minor lived in Missouri where the state constitution gave “every male citizen of the United States” the right to vote. Since that right was not granted to women, the local registrar of voters refused to allow Mrs. Minor to register to vote. Mrs. Minor challenged the law in court, and her case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1874, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874). Not ready to effectuate change, the Supreme Court punted by holding that the U.S. Constitution did not grant any one the right to vote, male or female. “[T]he Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one[.]” Minor, 178. Thus, held the Court, the states had the sole authority to decide who could vote, leaving Missouri a boys-only club. Although Mrs. Minor never cast a vote – she died 25 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment – she continued to be a leader for women’s suffrage. The Supreme Court’s decision in her case played a key role in the passage of the 19th Amendment which grants everyone the right to vote, male and female.
Although the 19th Amendment was a critical and historical cornerstone to the advancement of women, as we know, the exclusion of women continued. Particularly baffling to me, as a woman lawyer, is the decades it took for women to even begin to make inroads in the law.
Two statues adorn the steps of the United States Supreme Court. The Contemplation of Justice, a female figure, sits to the left and the Authority of Law, a male figure, sits to the right. The sculptor, James Earle Fraser, completed the statues in 1935, the year the modern-day U.S. Supreme Court Building opened; yet, ironically, it would be another 46 years before the first female, Sandra Day O’Connor, would be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981. For nearly 50 years, we were nothing more than a voiceless adornment outside the highest court in the land.
Maybe Mr. Fraser’s sculpture, the Contemplation of Justice, was a great harbinger of who was to come and for that we should honor its inclusion outside the Court 46 years earlier. But nothing equates to seats on the Court held by women. Justice O’Connor recognized her unique place in the history of law and was often asked about the role of a woman on the Court. Her response was, of course, classic: “I’ve always said that at the end of the day, on a legal issue, I think a wise old woman and a wise old man are going to reach the same conclusion.” Spoken like a lawyer who understands that lady justice is blind!
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg followed on the Court in 1993; then Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in 2009 and 2010.
Clearly, women have fought long and hard to have equality and the progress is measurable, but much more change lies ahead. Much of that change will come through the law which, in my opinion, obligates women lawyers to be at the forefront of women’s issues and supportive of women’s rights. Justice Ginsburg’s perspective on future change should be our guide: “I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.”
To open the eyes of any jury, judge, court or public opinion, we must be skilled advocates in general and, in particular, skilled advocates for women. Like Virginia Minor’s journey, every seemingly small step, even those that are not successful, can make a big difference in the future.