Houston Matters

Plenty Of Women Have Been Shortlisted For The Supreme Court — But Mostly For Show

The new book “Shortlisted” explores the women considered for the nation’s highest court, mainly to create the appearance of diversity while maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington.

If you've had a chance to listen to the Supreme Court's oral arguments since they've been streamed live the past two weeks, you've likely heard questions posed by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.

While the High Court includes three women today, as recently as the 1980s there was just one – Sandra Day O'Connor – and she was the first.

Sandra Day O'Connor Being Sworn In
Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn as the first woman on the Supreme Court.

And so completes our history of women on the Supreme Court. Yikes.

Out of 114 justices in the history of the High Court – just those four were women.

But there have been many women who were very close to becoming part of the Supreme Court and broke glass ceilings in their time.

Shortlisted Book
Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court is co-authored by UH Law Center professor Renee Knake Jefferson.

Their brush with constitutional immortality is being explored by Renee Knake Jefferson, who’s a professor of law at the UH Law Center. She co-authored the new book Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court with Hannah Brenner Johnson.

The book explores the women who were were discussed as possible nominees for the nation's highest court. Unfortunately, the book says, their presence on such shortlists was mainly meant to create the appearance of diversity — while at the same time preserving the status quo.

Florence Ellinwood Allen is sworn in as a Common Pleas Court Judge in Ohio in 1921.

In the audio above, Knake Jefferson tells Houston Matters host Craig Cohen about the nine women the book focuses on. These are women who appeared on the shortlists of presidents dating back to the 1930s:

  • Florence Allen – the first female judge on the highest court in Ohio; shortlisted by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman
  • Amalya Kearse – a federal appellate judge and the first African American woman viewed as a potential Supreme Court justice; shortlisted by Ronald Reagan
  • Soia Mentschikoff – the first female professor at Harvard; shortlisted by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Sylvia Bacon – a superior court judge; shortlisted by Richard Nixon
  • Mildred Lillie – a California Court of Appeals justice; shortlisted by Nixon
  • Carla Hills – Housing and Urban Development Secretary; shortlisted by Gerald R. Ford
  • Cornelia Kennedy – a justice on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; shortlisted by Ford and Reagan
  • Susie Sharp – the first female justice elected as chief of the North Carolina Supreme Court; shortlisted by Reagan
  • Joan Dempsey Klein – presiding judge on the California Court of Appeals; shortlisted by Reagan

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