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History of Women on the Supreme Court

It Took Nearly Two Centuries for First Female Justice to Join the Supreme Court


American lawyer Sandra Day O'Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981

American lawyer Sandra Day O'Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States first met on February 2, 1790 and heard its first case in 1792. It would take nearly two centuries -- another 189 years - - before this august yet single-sex body would more accurately reflect the composition of the nation it presided over with the advent of the court's first female associate justice.

In its 220-year history, only four women justices have served on the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor (1981-2005); Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-present); Sonia Sotomayor (2009-present) and former U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan (2010-present). The latter two, nominated by President Barack Obama, each earned a distinct footnote in history. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 6, 2009, Sotomayor became the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. When Kagan was confirmed on August 5, 2010, she changed the gender composition of the court as the third woman to serve simultaneously. As of October 2010, the Supreme Court became one-third female for the first time in its history.

The Supreme Court's first two women hailed from significantly different ideological backgrounds. The court's first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, was nominated by a Republican president in 1981 and was regarded as a conservative pick. The second female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the choice of a Democratic president in 1993 and widely viewed as liberal.

The two women served together until O'Connor's retirement in 2005. Ginsburg remained as the lone female justice on the Supreme Court until Sonia Sotomayor took the bench in the fall of 2009.

Ginsburg's future as a justice remains uncertain; a February 2009 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer suggests she may need to step down if her health worsens.

Next page - How a Promise on the Campaign Trail Led to the First Female Justice

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