When President Barack Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court in 2010, he reportedly expected Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be pleased because there would finally be a critical mass of women on the court: three out of nine justices, including Sonia Sotomayor (whom he appointed in 2009). But the outspoken jurist told PBS NewsHour last year that she won't be satisfied until she sees all female faces next to her.
"People ask me sometimes, when — when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court?" she said. "And my answer is when there are nine."
Considering the history of the Supreme Court — it first convened in 1790, and the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, was not appointed until 1981 — Justice Ginsburg's statement is not out of line. Women have some catching up to do on the nation's highest court.
This time around, if President Obama nominates anyone from the huge list of highly qualified women, the count would increase to four women and five men — a step in the right direction, but not yet far enough. Women make up a majority of the U.S. population, after all, and there are many candidates who are more than qualified to hold the job.
Lest we forget (especially you millennials, who have lately been accused by older feminists of not knowing our history), Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School at the top of her class. Yet the only position offered to her at any of the 40-plus law firms to which she applied was secretary. At the same time — and this was in the 1960s and 1970s, not that long ago — men in her law school class with much lower grades and fewer accomplishments were hired as associates and put on the fast track to partnerships.
She did volunteer work in the legal field until she got her foot in the door, eventually working as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, Calif., with no salary and no office (she shared space with a secretary). From there, she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona State Senate and later was elected to the position before running for a judgeship and working her way up again from there.
Ms. O'Connor, who retired in 2006, was the lone woman on the Supreme Court for 12 years until President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. Similarly, Ms. Ginsburg, after graduating first in her class from Columbia Law School (she attended Harvard Law for her first two years but moved to New York when her husband was offered a position at a prestigious law firm), only was offered secretarial jobs at law firms. Instead, she chose teaching — at Rutgers Law School.
(Interestingly, nearly 20 years later, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, also began her legal career teaching — legal writing — at Rutgers Law School. I will always wonder why teaching occupies such a low rung on the occupational ladder, especially in terms of salary, when nearly every single lawyer, physician, architect, etc. got where he or she is because of at least one inspirational teacher.)
Sadly, the law is hardly the only profession that has discriminated against women. Rosalyn Yalow, the second woman to win the Nobel prize in Medicine in 1977 (the first was Gerty Cori in 1947), graduated from Hunter College at the top of her class. Having been rejected by many university graduate programs, finally she was accepted at the University of Illinois.
Armed with a Ph.D., Yalow was only able to secure a secretarial job (only because she knew how to type and promised to learn stenography) for a biochemist at Columbia. She worked hard and eventually rose from there.
Similarly, in 2009, when Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University Professor of Neurosurgery and Pathology and Director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, presented a paper on the relationship between football players' head injuries and Alzheimer's and dementia to the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee at the NFL, the committee was unreceptive. Some even laughed, recalls Dr. McKee. But as male physicians became involved, concussions among football players became a high priority, with news articles and studies everywhere. This season Center Stage presented a play, "X's and O's," on this very subject.
One more example of a woman struggling to enter a so-called man's field is that of Linda Alvarado, owner of a large construction company, incorporated in 1976, who finally learned to sign her bids using only her first initial, which led to her first big contract: constructing bus shelters.
Yes, I know we've made recent strides: Janet Yellen, first woman to head the Federal Reserve; U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch; Hillary Clinton, a major president candidate. But until the land's highest court reflects the population, we've still not completed the journey to equality. We'll know soon if we're on the way.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is email@example.com.