“Remembering the Ladies” Series – Women Emerging in Government

Photograph of Geraldine Ferraro – the Vice Presidential candidate for the Democratic ticket in the 1984 presidential election – exiting an airplane with Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. (City of Boston Archives)
Photograph of the six female Democratic candidates at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Senator Barbara Mikulski is in the foreground. (Library of Congress)

Beyond the pursuit of greater representation under their government, there were women in the United States who aspired to hold positions of leadership in that very system. Up until the 20th century, there were few women who ran for office in the federal government. This was due to them not having the right to vote, rare equality in society and education, as well as there being sparse political outreach toward women specifically. The first woman to have ever served in the United States Congress was Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916. The first woman to be elected to the Senate was Hattie Caraway (D-AR) in 1932, while the first to serve for a full term of six years was Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) in 1978. At the time of writing, 352 women have served in the House of Representatives, while 58 women have done so in the Senate. In the history of women serving in the government, the year 1992 has since earned the informal designation as the “Year of the Woman.” Out of the nationwide gubernatorial, Congressional, and presidential elections taking place in the United States that year, women were constantly seen at the forefront as new elected leaders. Four new women from the Democratic Party were elected to the Senate, California became the first state to have two women serve as its Senators (Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer), and Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Senate. Accordingly, the press at the time quickly adopted the phrase “Year of the Woman” to highlight the large-scale emergence of women in prominent positions of political leadership in such rapid succession. The term has seen frequent use to describe female advancement in politics and society in the years since 1992, more recently to describe 2018 as a year where a record high of 108 women were elected to the House of Representatives. As more women gained positions of leadership in Congress, others strived to advance themselves toward the White House. Charlotta Bass – who had already broken ground as the first African-American woman to operate her own newspaper company – also became the first one to be nominated for Vice President by a political party, that being the Progressive Party in the 1952 Presidential Election. Decades later, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be selected by the Democratic Party as the Vice Presidential candidate, serving alongside Walter Mondale in the 1984 election season. Hillary Clinton – who had previously served as the First Lady to President Bill Clinton for two terms – became the first woman to be chosen as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election season. In the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election, Kamala Harris became the first woman – as well as the first with a mixed-ethnicity – to be sworn in as the Vice President, serving beside the newly-elected Joe Biden.

Photograph of Sandra Day O’Connor speaking with Ronald Reagan at the White House, July 1981. (White House Photographic Collection)
Photograph of Sandra Day O’Connor being sworn in to the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger, September 1981. (National Archives and Records Administration)

At the third branch of the federal government – the Judicial Branch – the first two women who ever held office there were in the unique position of not only coming by immediately after each other, but also had the near-total opposite perspectives on life and society from each other. The first woman to be appointed to and serve on the Supreme Court was Sandra Day O’Connor. Serving from 1981 to 2006, O’Connor was nominated by Ronald Reagan after serving as the first female majority leader of a state’s senate, that being the Republican Party in Arizona. Throughout her tenure, O’Connor often sided with the conservative side of the Supreme Court, but was capable of cooperating and compromising with liberal members on specific rulings. She lacked a specific position on the First Amendment, as certain rulings would be in favor of individual rights while others were in those of private institutions. In the case of Mitchell v. Helms in 2000, O’Connor joined the majority opinion that authorized the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act to provide loans to religious schools. Meanwhile, she agreed with the 1992 ruling of Lee v. Weisman, which determined that schools were not allowed to sponsor clerics to conduct prayers, regardless of it being non-denominational. From an analysis of O’Connor’s rulings throughout her career, Barry Lynn remarked in 2005 that she was a conservative, “but she saw the complexity of church-state issues and tried to choose a course that respected the country’s religious diversity.” On the Fourth Amendment, O’Connor publicly remarked that she was influenced by the social contract theory of Enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke. In the 1983 case of United States v. Place, the Supreme Court ruled that someone who is “sniffed” by a trained police dog has not formally been searched by the authorities, and as such has not had their Fourth Amendment right to privacy violated. O’Connor added that searches such as these could be considered legal under the two conditions that they actually be effective in finding contraband, and did not reveal “innocent but embarrassing information” about the person being searched. She later dissented in the 2001 ruling of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, which held that law enforcement was authorized to execute an arrest if someone is caught not wearing a seatbelt while driving. The logic behind the ruling was that an arrest for a misdemeanor did not formally count as an “unreasonable search” by the parameters of the Fourth Amendment, so long as the punishment was only a fine. In the dissent co-authored by O’Connor, the four opposing justices opined that there was a “broad range of conduct” within the spectrum of fine-only misdemeanors, and that giving “unbound discretion” to law enforcement officials harbored a “grave potential for abuse.” O’Connor’s perspective on the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 was complex. While she publicly supported granting women the baseline right ot abortion, O’Connor called for limits in specific cases. She criticized Roe’s use of trimester measurements in a dissenting opinion on City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983. The notable Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 reaffirmed the Roe decision, while also authorizing the states to have their own regulations on abortion as long as they did not place an “undue burden” on the core ability to get an abortion. In a statement affirming the majority ruling, O’Connor co-wrote with justices Kennedy and Souter that the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mysteries of human life” are at the “heart of liberty.” From 1986 to 2005, O’Connor further found herself in the unique position as the “swing vote” for the Rehnquist Court, so-named after the time period where the eponymous judge served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Many of the decisions that O’Connor presided over were majority opinions. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1995, the majority upheld state restrictions against second trimester abortions that were non-essential to the mother’s health. The stipulation was part of the original Roe v. Wade abortion requirements, although in a concurring opinion, O’Connor did not specifically rule or otherwise call for Roe to be overturned. Years later in 2003, O’Connor sided with the majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, determining that affirmative action programs for student admissions do not violate Fourteenth Amendment, so long as the respective programs acknowledge other possible factors of an individual student’s evaluation. Sandra Day O’Connor’s judicial successor not only commenced her career at the same time as her predecessor, but would also stand out for her identity and her different perspectives on society and politics. 

Photograph of Ruth Bader Ginsburg being sworn in by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 1993. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Photograph of the first four women who served on the Supreme Court, 2010. (Public Domain)

Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman to become a Supreme Court justice, as well as the first Jewish woman to do so. She was nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993 after her prior service in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, being previously selected by Jimmy Carter in 1980. Although she originally served as a moderate voice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg gradually shifted to a more explicitly liberal perspective, ruling and advocating for more progressive shifts in the decisions she faced. In the 1996 case of United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg joined the majority in eliminating the male-only applicant policy from the Virginia Military Institute. She specifically observed that the policy was in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that VMI’s attempt to make a separate school for female cadets reminded her of the old, racially-segregated policies of the University of Texas Law School. Ginsburg later co-authored the majority opinions on 1999’s Olmstead v. L.C. (determined that mental illnesses could be legally considered a form of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), and 2000’s Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. (locals have the legal standing to file lawsuits against companies involved in industrial pollution that has affected their local interests). With Supreme Court decisions that did not entirely reflect her progressive approach to legal affairs, Ginsburg would accordingly dissent on them. 2007’s Ledbetter v. Goodyear ruled that employers can not be sued for pay discrimination based on race or gender if the claim was based on a decision made by the employer 180 days earlier or more. Ginsburg dissented, arguing that it was unfair to expect an employee who was discriminated against to know exactly when, where, and why they were being paid less for the equal work they did. After the decision was ruled on, Ginsburg called upon Congress to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to counteract this hypothetical scenario. Just nine days after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed, with the specific purpose of resetting the 180 day statute of limitations with every new paycheck’s arrival, as such allowing employees more time to prove that workplace discrimination was taking place. A decision that overlapped closely with the future of voting in the United States was in 2013, with the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional, and were summarily eliminated. The preclearance requirements were designed as a deterrent against the possibility of a state changing its voting practices with ulterior motives, particularly among states with an observable history of voter suppression. Several decades later, the majority of the justices opined that enough time had passed in American history that the overwhelming majority of discriminatory voting laws – as well as the social climate that allowed it to prosper – had long since disappeared, and as such no longer necessitated legislative action to counteract its subsequent reappearances. Ginsburg was the foremost dissenter on this decision, arguing in her written response that getting rid of preclearance “when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” When the opportunity arose for Ginsburg to retire in 2013 and 2014 – highlighted with her recent survival of two intervals of cancer – she opted to remain on the Supreme Court. She published a collection of her written works and speeches in My Own Words in 2016, gave a symposium on governmental reform at Georgetown University in 2017, and announced her support for the Me Too social movement against sexual harassment in 2018. After several years of recurring cancer treatments from the mid to late 2010’s, Ginsburg passed away from pancreatic cancer in September 2020 at the age of eighty-seven. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband Martin, a lawyer and U.S. Army veteran who had passed away ten years earlier.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

Leave a Reply