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Advancing Women's Leadership
A Series by Marie C. Wilson, President of The White House Project


More than Numbers: Women on the Supreme Court

In a 2003 interview with Judy Woodruff of CNN, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor described how she felt when Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined her on the Supreme Court: "The minute Justice Ginsberg came … we were nine justices. It wasn't seven and then 'the women.' We became nine. And it was a great relief to me…"

Numbers do matter. In the years when Justices Ginsberg and O’Connor ruled side by side with their seven male colleagues, the presence of women on the court normalized and, more importantly, it put attention squarely where it should be: on the issues before the Supreme Court and on their rulings, not on gender. Now Justice O’Connor is gone, which provided President George W. Bush with a balancing opportunity that he bypassed (in spite of his wife’s urging). The Court is about to become as lonely for Justice Ginsberg as it was for Sandra Day O’Connor, and it will once again serve as a glaring example of unrepresentative democracy.

As of April 2005, the U.S. ranked 61st internationally in women’s political leadership behind India, Ireland, Slovakia and Iceland, among others. Iraq, at least for now, guarantees that women are 25 percent of all government bodies, and Afghanistan has a similar quota. It’s thrilling to see Iraq’s women involved in the formation of their new government (although, unhappily, their rights may be severely curtailed in their constitution). The Bush administration has encouraged this inclusion of women and yet the tenets we export are not upheld within our own borders.

But, it’s not just about numbers. When President Bush gets his next opportunity to appoint a justice, he should find a woman (and there are plenty) committed to the issues that allow women to lead in their own lives and in the world. If “W” truly is “for women,” as his campaign slogan declared, Bush should demonstrate that in his choices. A president’s choice of nominee is a statement about his priorities and values. Reagan showed his respect for a woman’s voice when he nominated O’Connor. Clinton did the same when he chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Bush should use any opportunity he is given to place a woman in a leading role in government.

The nomination of Thurgood Marshall, as the first African American on the Court, was heralded for who he was and who he represented. So, too, was the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. They added new and vital elements to the character of the Court. O’Connor’s nomination was important because she became a role model to women and has remained as such. If her legacy teaches us anything, it is the value of a strong female voice. Her record as a salient, thoughtful jurist and her place as the deciding vote in countless cases is the reason why more women should be represented on our highest court. The Court deserves more nominees, not less who provide unique perspectives.

A woman’s voice not only brings unique timbre to debate, but also plays a necessary part in real democracy. It is a vital statement about our society that we do not have more women in the highest positions of our government. The next justice must be a woman. And the next. And the next. Women are more than 50 percent of the population of this country. It’s time our institutions looked like it, including the Supreme Court – and including the presidency.

Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).


The White House Project, a national, non-partisan organization, is dedicated to advancing women's leadership across sectors, enhancing public perceptions of women's ability to lead and fostering the entry of women into leadership positions, including the U.S. Presidency. The White House Project is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization and can be found online at www.TheWhiteHouseProject.org . Vote, Run, LeadTM is a White House Project initiative to engage young women in the political process as voters, as activists and as candidates for political office and can be found online at www.VoteRunLead.org.



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