Women’s History Month: Important Female Figures in the Law

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley
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Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley

The origins of Women’s History Month date back to 1981, when it was announced that a nationwide celebration of female icons and influencers would take place in March of 1982 for one week. Five years later, in 1987, that week turned into an entire month thanks to a resolution passed by Congress.

Today, Women’s History Month is backed by the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Gallery of Art, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Women’s History Month honors and celebrates the struggles and achievements of American women throughout the history of the United States,” the Library of Congress states on its Web site. “American women have struggled throughout our history to gain rights not simply for themselves but for many other under represented and disenfranchised groups in America.”

The goal of Women’s History Month is to recognize, appreciate and applaud the important role women have played in U.S. history. In the words of President Ronald Regan, who issued the order for the first official fete, “…women have at times been overlooked….”

“American women of every race, creed and ethnic background helped found and build our Nation in countless recorded and unrecorded ways,” President Regan stated in the 1982 document. “As pioneers, teachers, mothers, homemakers, soldiers, nurses and laborers, women played and continue to play a vital role in American economic, cultural and social life. In science, business, medicine, law, the arts and the home, women have made significant contributions to the growth and development of our land. Their diverse service is among America’s most precious gifts.”

The document continues, “As leaders in public affairs, American women not only worked to secure their own rights of suffrage and equal opportunity but also were principal advocates in the abolitionist, temperance, mental health reform, industrial labor and social reform movements, as well as the modern civil rights movement. Their dedication and commitment heightened awareness of our society’s needs and accelerated our common efforts to meet those needs. As volunteers, women have provided invaluable service and leadership in American charitable, philanthropic and cultural endeavors. And, as mothers and homemakers, they remain instrumental in preserving the cornerstone of our Nation’s strength – the family.”

The list of women in law who have made significant contributions is as illustrious as it is impressive. Ruth Bader Ginsburg tops it. The second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court (the first being Sandra Day O’Connor, who also is on the list), Ginsburg achieved greatness when the legal profession was dominated almost entirely by men. At Cornell University, she finished in the top of her class, enrolling in Harvard Law School as one of nine women.

“Outside the classroom, Ginsburg spent a substantial part of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights,” according to a National Law Review article titled “Thirteen Powerful And Famous Female Attorneys.” “She won numerous victories arguing before the Supreme Court, volunteering as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970’s.”

O’Connor, as the article so eloquently puts it, shattered “the highest glass ceiling in American jurisprudence” when she rose to the bench.

“For those too young to remember, O’Connor was so admired on the public stage that there were even suggestions she run for president,” NPR reports in a story titled “From Triumph To Tragedy, ‘First’ Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor” about an authorized biography. “She had no interest in that, but her vote and her approach to judging dominated the U.S Supreme Court for a quarter of a century, until her retirement in 2006.”

Here are other women of distinction:

  • Sonya Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice
  • Judith Sheindlin, known as Judge Judy – a household name
  • Janet Reno, the 78thS. attorney general and the first female one

“Janet Reno, the first female Attorney General of the United States, has had a life filled with “firsts,” according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. “Reno graduated from Cornell University in 1960 with a degree in chemistry, having worked her way through school as a waitress and dormitory supervisor. She then earned her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1963, one of sixteen women in a class of more than 500. She eventually became a partner in a law firm that had previously denied her a position because she was a woman.”

Even though Women’s History Month will end March 31, those women and countless others will continue to be honored by Americans every day.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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