he was known as a quintessential “un-feminist feminist.” As a state legislator, she refused to back a constitutional amendment that would have secured equal rights for women. Eager to separate herself from zealous women’s libbers, she once promised a Rotary Club that she came to them with both her bra as well as her wedding ring in-tact.
Political commentators argued that Sandra Day O’Connor had to be this way to make it as the first woman to serve on the American Supreme Court. Evan Thomas, the author of O’Connor’s recent biography, First, reports that several sources described the first female Supreme Court justice as effective because she was a more traditional woman nominated during the conservative Reagan era. Thomas noted that she was “not threatening” and “practical,” perhaps allowing her to be a more effective first female justice than she would have been as a flagrant feminist.
The United Kingdom didn’t quite take the same approach when it appointed its first female high court justice. Appointed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in 2004, Lady Brenda Hale was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights even before she took up her court tenure. In a 2003 interview, she criticized British judges’ lodgings for being run like “gentlemen’s clubs,” explaining that ladies were expected to leave the men to talk amongst themselves after dinner. Sick of catering to the boys’ club, Hale “refused to leave the dining room” on at least one occasion.
And on the bench, Hale has been known as an adamant feminist. Following her appointment to the House of Lords in 2004, she created a coat of arms bearing a motto meaning “women are equal to everything.” In 2011, she argued that judges “should be committed to the principle of equality for all.”
If Hale is so outspoken, however, it may be because women’s legal equality in the United Kingdom has been somewhat abysmal. Though the United States couldn’t have possibly nominated an outspoken feminist for its first female high court pick, it also selected its first female Supreme Court justice in 1981. Hale didn’t become the first female law lord until 2004, and became the UK’s first female Supreme Court justice when the country’s judiciary migrated out of the House of Lords in 2009. Upon her appointment to the House of Lords, equality activists noted that Canada had nominated its first female high court justice in 1982, and women were already serving on high courts in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
The UK’s hesitation to introduce women to its highest court is representative of a larger legal phenomenon. Women’s representation is low for judges across the UK. Across Europe, judges are, on average, 51% female. In England and Wales, only 30% of judges are women; in Scotland, that proportion drops to 23%.
But while they might have placed a woman on the high court first, the UK has beat the United States to another important milestone for women in the law. In July 2017, Lady Justice Hale, the United Kingdom’s first woman on the Supreme Court, became the Court’s first female president. Australia achieved the same milestone just a few months earlier, when Susan Kiefel was sworn in as the country’s first female chief supreme court justice. And Canada selected its first female high court chief justice, Beverly McLachlin, in 2000.
Outside of the Anglosphere, other countries have made more significant strides in selecting female leadership for their high courts. Between 1990 and 2014, 18 women from 14 different African countries became either chief justice or president of their state’s constitutional court. And other high courts in the developing world have made notable strides in women’s judicial representation. On the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, which serves nine countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, 60% of judges are women.
And in courts which have successfully seated women on high court benches, other representational concerns are receiving judicial attention. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s efforts to improve gender parity have been extended towards the country’s courts. In 2016, exactly half of Trudeau’s judicial appointments were women. When he nominated Sheilah Martin to replace Beverly McLachlin in 2017, maintaining the court’s four-five ratio of women to men, some progressive activists were disappointed that Trudeau had not selected the country’s first indigenous judge. One law professor even argued that it wasn’t hard to find “meritorious women” to fill the court—clear progress in a country that picked its first female justice in 1982.
In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton nominated the second American woman to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Unlike Justice O’Connor, Ginsburg had a demonstrated history of advocating for women’s rights through her work as an attorney—a liberal reputation that she built upon as a Supreme Court justice. She has since been joined by two other liberal court justices, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. With courts around the world appointing more female justices and elevating women to court leadership, the growth in women’s representation on the U.S. Supreme Court is clearly part of a global trend. It remains to be seen, however, whether more women take additional seats on high courts across the globe.