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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.

Opening Doors for Women Everywhere

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, wasn’t the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, but she was a trailblazer throughout her legal career who opened the doors to many firsts for the women who followed her.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In 1993, Ginsburg joined the first female on the high court – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – and served with her until O’Connor retired in 2006.

One of Ginsburg’s majority opinions considered one of the most significant of her tenure on the court – U.S. v. Virginia Military Institute (VMI) – opened the doors of the last all-male public university to qualified women.

Virginia Military Institute is the alma mater of General George C. Marshall, the Army’s first five-star general and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as notables in almost every field of endeavor. The university built its reputation on military discipline and physical and academic rigor.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Virginia Military Institute, which is a publicly funded institution, for barring the admission of women. The case worked its way through the federal court system and in 1996 the Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional for a school receiving public funds to exclude women. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion.

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The ruling struck down the male-only admissions policy as a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The vote was 7-1, with Justice Antonin Scalia dissenting.

In the majority opinion that she wrote Ginsburg described as "presumptively invalid ... a law or official policy that denies to women, simply because they are women, equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society, based upon what they can do."

Today, according to VMI’s website, about 11 percent of students are women. The school reports the average retention rate for the classes that graduated from 2013 to 2016 was 69 percent for men. Women in the same classes had a retention rate of 66 percent.

Women in the Federal Courts Today

Today, about one-third of active judges are women who serve as U.S. Court of Appeals judges, U.S. District Court judges, U.S. Magistrate judges, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges.

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

Judges from throughout the federal court system are featured here as part of Women’s History Month. Each four-minute video presents a motivating example of perseverance and excellence that inspires viewers at any stage of 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. 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 Julie A. Robinson reminds students that:  “You never can dream big enough, sometimes.  You can never really know all that is in store for you.”
  • U.S. District Court Judge Lorna G. Schofield enjoys mentoring young women in the legal community.
  • 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.”
  • U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann C. Williams says that each generation stands on the shoulders of people who went before them.

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.”