Gender in the American Judicial System: It Matters. (1/10)

Topic for Assignment: Representation of women in judicial positions and the impact of their presence in the Judicial system historically


Secondary Source: Bremer, Celeste F. 2014. “Gender Matters.” The Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 17 (3): 427-434.

Image result for celeste bremer iowa
Chief Magistrate Judge Celeste Bremer

Bremer’s article analyzes the impact of women in the judicial system and the impact that gender plays in the application process to positions of authority within the judicial system itself. The quote: “Justice must not only be done; it must be seen to be done” is frequently referenced throughout Bremer’s article and serves a touchstone for exploration as to how conscious and continuous action must be done by an aware public to ensure equality within the justice system for both the accused and it’s officials. Bremer’s thesis in this article states that while it is difficult to determine whether gender predicts the outcome of court decisions, gender definitely does affect the overall judicial process. Additionally, she repeatedly states that gender in the judicial system (without question) matters. Bremer’s 28 year background as a judicial worker in various capacities strengthens her thesis and allows her to give valuable insight from her own personal career experiences.

Bremer began her paper by stating that when organizations are historically developed and currently dominated by one gender, the institution itself becomes gendered. As a result, gendered institutions then fail to be responsive to or recognize the needs of persons of the “other” gender and are more responsive to the dominant gender. When putting this into consideration of the American judicial system historically and today, it’s easy to see cases where women (the “other” group in this case) have not had their needs recognized by the justice system. While I was reading this article, I thought of the women involved in the Salem Witch Trials who faced all male courts that often showed little sympathy for their cases or who judged them according to the gendered stereotypes of their day. A more modern example of this can also be found in the recent strings of rape cases across the country (Brock Turner, etc.) where male judges have failed to properly respond appropriately to the female victims involved in these cases and have given their male abusers limited punishments for their crimes. Additionally, this concept can also be seen in the lack of female justices appointed to the nation’s Supreme Court and the lack of female representation in state courts as well. Bremer mentioned that when she mentioned the idea of the judicial system being gendered to male colleagues, they understood that the concept referred to “unfairness” but were “nonplussed” that anyone could accuse them of being unfair. In contrast, when she mentioned this to her female colleagues, they resonated with the concept because to them it was an accurate description of the system in which they operated and their experiences as being treated as the “other” in comparison to their male colleagues. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in a system where men are catered to, the men whom Bremer spoke to about this had a hard time relating the judiciary to unfairness because they themselves had never experienced inequity within it. They had no extra barriers to climb and they never had their gender act as an issue of concern when being considered for the positions in which they worked. As a result, their reality was positively shaped by their gender rather than negatively shaped as experienced by their female counterparts.

Bremer mentioned that despite efforts to increase women within positions of state and federal courts, women never seem to make through the Merit Selection commissions or appointment processes proportionally in their representation “in either the pool of applicants or the population of [Iowa] practitioners”. In specific reference to the state of Iowa, Bremer noted that even in 2013 the Iowa Supreme Court had no female justices in its ranks and over a span of 130 years, there had only been two female judges in the eighth circuit court. These statistics raise the question of why women are not being represented proportionately in the justice system. Important to note is that the lack of representation of females in the American justice system is not due to unqualified female applicants or a lack of female candidates thereof. Female applicants are frequently barred, forced to negotiate special barriers, and also faced with overcoming stereotypical thinking of their gender in order to make it into the judicial system. They also have to constantly prove and argue of their worthiness to serve. Referring back to how the judicial institution is gendered to favor males, it seems to be that the judiciary is (in many regards) a “boys club”. Men have an easier time making it up and through the system simply through the “merits” of their gender. Instead of fighting for a seat at the judicial table, they are almost instantaneous assigned one–they are the first choice.

Bremer touched on how the typical image of a judge is a white (another issue in and of itself) male in his mid-50’s. She told of a personal experience where a client’s lawyer stated (in front of her) that the client would like Judge Walker (one of Bremer’s male associates) because “he just looks like a judge”.  Despite efforts made to place women in judicial positions, female judiciary members are often seen as “tokens” and not held in as of a regard as their male counterparts. I think this can be related back to gender roles within society and expectations that are placed upon the female gender. Women are seen as emotional and “soft” in comparison to men who are prescribed to be intellectual and professional. It seems to be that gender perceptions leak into institutions and play a direct role in the perceptions of those within the institution. Additionally, it appears to be that within the judicial system, prescribed male behavioral traits are favored and seen as more desirable than those prescribed to women–hence why male judges are more favored than female judges. Bremer also mentioned that her gender as female played a large role in how parties treated her within the court. She gave examples where individuals would come up to her after court proceedings to tell her personal stories, to thank her, or that they felt comfortable in her court–something rarely, if not ever, done in courts that are presided by male judges. This acted as further evidence to Bremer of the role of gender within court settings and how gender matters within the courts. Her story suggests that women have a difficult time escaping  gender expectations and stereotypes within the court and that even the accused maintain preconceived notions of how to treat female judges solely based upon their gender. Bremer also argued that because the presence of females in judicial positions is not normative, female judges are also prescribed a false image as well–often heavily influenced Judge Judy since she is usually the only interaction that the public has with women in the judiciary.

Women regularly make themselves available for judicial positions and are regularly looked over. Bremer compared the fight for equal representation in the courts to the fights for suffrage and the right for women to serve on juries and I agree with her. Historically, women have been put at a disadvantage when attempting to serve within the judicial system because the judicial institution has long catered to men. Women in no way are unequal to men in their capabilities, however, they are unequally treated in regards to their gender. Gender in the courts does matter not only for female victims and criminals, but also for those in judicial positions. Gender makes a difference.Although there are currently three women in the federal supreme court and women in various judicial positions, we are far from fair representation in the institution itself. Justice still must be seen to be done through consistent and constant efforts for change. “We cannot inspire and maintain confidence in a justice system that has—for hundreds of years—excluded women from full participation. There is more work to be done.”


3 thoughts on “Gender in the American Judicial System: It Matters. (1/10)

  1. I think this has so much to do with the issue of representation for women in government. If there were more women in congress, maybe different issues would be addressed and our nation would be in a different place than it is now. Women’s issues would likely receive more attention. I think the same of the justice system – involvement from more women leads to more fairness for women in general.


  2. Representation is a powerful tool. America’s beginnings were based on the male colonists’ rage over decisions being made for them without their representation. Women face the problem of under-representation in courts today, and decisions are being made for women without the power of their voice to influence the verdict. On a completely different thread, you mentioned the classic image of a middle-aged white male judge. I wonder if the image of Judge Judy hurts the ability of Americans to imagine a female judge making serious, significant decisions in a court room.


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