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Women's History Month

Women’s History Month in March honors the struggles and achievements of women in American history. The federal courts join in celebrating their accomplishments at every level of the Third Branch of government.

A 1987 presidential proclamation designated March as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, Presidents have issued annual proclamations honoring women and their contributions in every walk of life. In the federal judiciary, for example, more than 3,500 women have served as federal judges. 

Women in the Federal Courts Today

Today, about one-third of active Article III judges are women. Among the contemporary women who sit on the federal bench are U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann C. Williams; U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jacqueline Nguyen; U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall; U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Brown; and U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez. 

Their first-person narratives are part of a growing collection of Pathways to the Bench videos about judges who have faced adversity and now serve on the federal bench.

  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann C. Williams says that each generation stands on the shoulders of people who went before them.
  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jacqueline Nguyen encourages young people to “Have the courage and work ethic to accept opportunities that will shape your life.”
  • U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall says there are times when everyone has to “Dig deep,” believe in themselves, and ask for help when it is needed.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Brown reminds students that:  “You never can dream big enough, sometimes.  You can never really know all that is in store for you.”
  • U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez believes that it is important to “Keep going, even when you don’t know if you can make it.”

Female Judges Make Federal Court History

The first woman was appointed to the federal bench nearly 140 years after the federal court system was established. Learn more about some of the pioneers who paved the way for women to follow them into the federal judiciary.

Genevieve Rose Cline was the first woman named to the federal bench. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge appointed her to the U.S. Customs Court (now known as the U.S. Court of International Trade). She served on the court for 25 years.

Florence Allen was the first female to serve on an Article III appellate court.  In 1909, she was the only woman in a class of some 100 students at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt named her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Burnita Shelton Matthews was the first woman to serve as a U.S. District Court judge.  She was appointed in 1949 by President Harry S. Truman to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She went to law school at night at what would become George Washington University School of Law, earning LL.B and LL.M degrees.  She also  became a  Master of Patent Law.

Mary Honor Donlon was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to the U.S. Customs Court to fill the seat vacated by Genevieve Rose Cline.  Donlon earned her LL.B from Cornell Law School and went on to become, in 1928, the first woman partner at a Wall Street law firm.

Sarah Tilghman Hughes was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. She attended George Washington University School of Law at night and commuted to the campus from her home, a tent near the Potomac River. She earned an LL.B in 1922.

Learn more about each of these “way pavers.”