Main content

Women's History Month

March is Women's History Month. The federal courts observe Women's History Month by celebrating women's education and accomplishments.  The following profiles of female judges in the federal judiciary are examples of how women have shaped legal history and inspired others to succeed.

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.  Today, about one-third of active Article III judges are women.

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.” 

Sitting Judges Share Their Diverse Pathways to the Bench

A series of four-minute video profiles, called Pathways to the Bench, offers a first-person view of the paths that five contemporary women took to become federal judges.

  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen says she learned as a child the importance of hard work and appreciating opportunities by watching her parents when her family fled their idyllic life in Vietnam and started over in California.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Kendall kept moving forward through loss and challenges on her journey to the federal bench. She talks about overcoming setbacks by believing that life will get better, digging deep, and accepting the support of family and friends.
  • U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson was born in Topeka, Kansas, the city where Brown v. Board of Education began. At age five, she decided to become a lawyer, an ambition her father encouraged. “You never can dream big enough,” Robinson says.
  • U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez got a full-time job right after high school before putting herself through college and law school. She doesn’t consider her journey unusual because today’s students face many of the same challenges that she did. 
  • Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann C. Williams credits her parents for showing her that, regardless of the circumstances, excellence overcomes stereotypes.