April 15, 2010 by Ilene H. Lang
“It’s fine to be the first, but I didn’t want to be the last,” said Sandra Day O’Connor at the University of Kansas, reflecting on her appointment in 1981 as the first female Supreme Court Justice.
I had no idea O’Connor and I shared similar views about female firsts!
O’Connor is currently on a nationwide speaking tour to promote her new online civics initiative, OurCourts.org, but I’ve noticed the media has focused instead on her views on diversity given the vacancy Justice John Paul Stevens will leave behind.
In New York, O’Conner made it clear that more diversity is needed on the Supreme Court: “Our nearest neighbor, Canada, has four women on its nine-member court, and one is their chief justice. And they’re a great group. Now what’s the matter with us? You know, we can do better.”
I know we can do better, too.
The stats are depressing. While women make up 51% of our population, only two women—a mere 22%—sit on the Supreme Court.
This week I wrote a letter to President Obama on behalf of Catalyst noting how Stevens’ exit creates a terrific opportunity to move the court one step closer to parity. In the business world, gender diversity can boost the bottom line. With greater boardroom diversity come fresher perspectives and a broader range of viewpoints. I think more diversity could have a similar impact on our country’s highest court.
When O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 ranked third in her class of 103, she couldn’t even secure an interview at a California law firm. Undeterred, she turned to public service. She volunteered to work for free at the San Mateo County attorney’s office until a job became available. Four months later, she had her own office and first paycheck. The rest is history.
Changing the ratio at the top—the very top— is the best way to shatter stereotypes that dictate what a woman can and cannot do. By creating a Supreme Court that accurately reflects the rich diversity of thought and experience in America, President Obama can broaden horizons for all women, and in turn, strengthen our nation.