Girls' Night Out

By Lisa McElroy

In the fall of 1981, I was a thirteen year-old high school freshman.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a judge on the D.C. Circuit.

Sonia Sotomayor was a young prosecutor in New York.

Elena Kagan was a recent college graduate, still considering law school.

And Sandra Day O’Connor was a newly minted Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

At a commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of Justice O’Connor’s first Term on the Court last Wednesday, Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan told the audience exactly where they were when they heard the news that President Ronald Reagan had fulfilled his campaign promise to appoint the first woman Justice (Justice Ginsburg, for example, was driving home and heard it on the radio). I don’t remember exactly when I heard. I just know that this scrappy Arizonan lit a fire under me – and apparently under a lot of other women like me.

A lot of them were at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum on Wednesday night. Like me, they got there early and lined up outside on the chilly spring evening. Like me, they wanted great seats – and none were reserved, not even for judges or VIPs. Like me, they had come a long way (I from Philadelphia, the woman behind me in line from Chicago) to be one of four hundred groupies in the audience to see the four female Justices – three sitting, one retired but still full of spunk – on one stage, together, talking about what it’s like to be a trailblazing woman in an institution where 108 men but only four women have served since the Court first sat in 1789.

Those of us who follow the Court with enthusiasm agreed that it wasn’t about what Justices O’Connor, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan said; in fact, most of their comments were familiar from speeches or interviews they’d given in the past. It was about the sisterhood, about the visual, about the montage of these four everyday women who, through four well-placed strikes of lightning, became extraordinary. It wasn’t about the politics, or the jurisprudence, or even the philosophy; it was about the laughs over exercise classes taken (or not), over huge (or small) numbers of cases heard per Term, over lunches eaten with the other Justices (or skipped). It was about the warmth, not the wardrobe (all of the four were dressed relatively casually). It was about collegiality, not competition (Justice Kagan actually seemed deferential, sitting back and listening most of the time). It was about friendship, not fanaticism (not a single decided case was mentioned).

This was an evening that gave “girls’ night out” a whole new meaning.

When I tell my students that I have lived through the civil rights era – and I make them admit under pain of death that I’m just not that old – pretty much nothing makes the point like noting that, for the first thirteen years of my life, there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court. As of 1977, just four years before Justice O’Connor’s appointment to the Court, only eight women had ever served in the federal judiciary. By 2007, there were about 500 women on the federal bench. It was only thirty years, but it was a pretty formative thirty years, both in my life and in that of the federal judiciary.

Even though she has often said that she was less concerned with being the first female Supreme Court Justice than with not being the last, I don’t know how much of the credit we can give Justice O’Connor for the uptick in women lawyers and judges over the last thirty years. One thing is sure: as more women graduate from law school and achieve more and more in the field – as Justices Sotomayor and Kagan did – having more women on the federal bench should be less and less of a surprise.

Why, then, was it so compelling to see the four female Justices together on stage? Why is it notable to see three of them together on the bench six or so mornings a month?

I asked myself those questions as I told my daughters about what it was like to be just two rows away from women who, together and individually, had made history. And I think this is the answer: It was about girl power.

It was about a certainty on the part of these four women that they had something important to contribute to what once was, let’s face it, an old boys’ club. It was about the confidence to carve out their own spaces (like the all-female exercise class Justice O’Connor founded in the Supreme Court gym) and to forge without hesitation into others (like the Justices’ dining and robing rooms).

It was about representing, as Justice O’Connor put it on Wednesday night, the fifty-one or fifty-two percent of the population that is female, and doing it with integrity and gumption and pizzazz.

And Wednesday night was about celebrating what makes women great.

I don’t remember where I was when I heard that a woman had been appointed to the Supreme Court. I was probably at cross country practice, or in my boarding school dorm room, or having dinner in the dining hall.

But the presence the four female Justices exuded on Wednesday night – that is something I will not soon forget.