Women in the American Judiciary: Their Influence and Impact. (2/10)

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


Secondary Source: Palmer, Barbara. 2001. “Women in the American Judiciary: Their Influence and Impact.” Women & Politics 23, no. 3/4: 89. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed October 26, 2016)

As the first female Justice to serve on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor offered some of the first conclusive evidence of the impact that women have within the Judiciary.

From the time that American women were first allowed to hold positions of prestige within the American judiciary, society has questioned whether  female judges (or female judicial figures) behave differently than their male counterparts or if instead, they conform to existing institutional norms. Do female judges have a unique and a distinct impact and influence in the courts–for better or worse? If so, how does this impact manifest itself and is it significant?

From 1968-1974, research was done within an area referred to as “Metro City” to determine if there were differences in the sentencing behaviors of male and female judges. The study found that female judges acted in the same manner that their male counterparts did–even within rape cases. However, the same area was studied again from 1971-1979 and researchers found that while the judging behaviors between men and women were the same, female judges were twice as likely to send women to jail than male judges were due to “paternal” attitudes held towards female defendants. It seems to be that during the decade between the start of the first study and the end of the second, something initiated change within the female population of judges in this particular area of America (this perhaps is also a reflection of changing attitudes nationally as well). During this decade, not only did the second wave of the women’s rights movement begin to take speed,  but also in the 1970’s, the National Association of Women Judges began work to eliminate gender discrimination in the justice system. Perhaps as women’s rights in the workplace (and women’s rights in general) became more prevalent in mainstream culture, female judges felt more confidence to break away from their male colleagues more so than in  the decade before (given that 1950’s and early 1960’s American society was intensely paternalistic). Although these findings initially suggest that women in the judiciary did more harm than good for the accused of their gender or that before the 1970’s women in the judiciary had no impact upon cases regarding women’s rights, the reality is far from that. Rather, these studies show that women are (in many regards) more capable to execute justice than their male counterparts due to less inherent gender biases. Furthermore, the findings from 1968-1974 also suggest that female judges were capable of navigating an intensely masculine institution on equal terms with men themselves. Perhaps in both cases of sentencing similarly to their male counterparts and sentencing harsher than their male counterparts, female justices were also trying to contradict the gender expectations placed upon them as well. The findings of 1971-1979 also prove common claims that male judges perceive women as “children” or beings incapable of logical attention in the sense that when convicted of a crime, women often escape conviction and when presenting sex-discrimination cases (rape, abuse, etc.) to the court they aren’t taken seriously. From this, it’s easy to see that a justice system consisting of men alone is fundamentally flawed and that the presence of women within a heavily masculine institution is significantly consequential.

Studies suggest that due to sex-role socialization, women tend to fear crime and take it more seriously than men –especially in cases of sex-discrimination. From a feminist perspective, this is probably due to women being raised in fear of becoming victims of rape or other crimes against their gender; as well as having an awareness of crime ingrained within their psyche from a young age. Additionally, women share a sense of being designated as the “other” in various aspects of life within American culture. Research done within state supreme courts, United State courts of appeals, and the United States Supreme Court have found that female judges are overwhelmingly the strongest advocates for women’s rights regardless of their political ideology or association with the feminist movement. Again, this suggests that the socialization of gender plays a significant role in how cases are perceived by both genders and that there is a sense of shared experience between women from all walks of life that men are incapable of comprehending. This understanding of the female experience within populations of female judges allows for justice to be served in ways that are impossible in courts run solely by male judges due to the influencing factors of gender bias, sex-role socialization, and an inability to empathize in cases of sex-discrimination. Evidence of this can be found in the Brock Turner rape case. Although it could be argued that stating that a female judge would have issued a harsher sentence to the rapist and more justice to the female victim is presumptive, the above findings provide ample evidence in support of this claim. It can be reasonably deduced that had a female judge presided over of the case of Brock Turner that the outcome would have been vastly different.

In the source article for this post, Barbara Palmer stated: “The mere presence of a woman on the bench was one of the best predictors of decisions in favor of women filing sex-discrimination claims.” She supported this statement by giving the example of Supreme Court rulings following the appointment of America’s first female Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. While O’Connor served on the Supreme Court, support for women’s claims increased from 63% to 75%. Palmer then went on to state: “Not only do female justices support women’s rights claims, but even low numbers of women have a substantial effect on whether or not courts decide in favor of women’s rights claims. The implication is that male judges change their decision-making behavior with the addition of a woman to the bench.”Essentially, Palmer is stating that the integration of women within the justice system fosters positive changes in the outcomes of sex-discrimination cases. Why this occurs hasn’t been studied in detail, but it may be due to a heightened sense of accountability that occurs in correspondence to female presence in court proceedings.  The irony in these findings, is that despite statistical influence proving the positive influence of women within the courts, on average it takes the senate three months longer to decide on appointing a female justice than a male justice. This suggests that the influence of women is largely underappreciated and perhaps, even unwanted or begrudgingly accepted (this could also be largely influence by the fact that like the justice system, the political system of America is masculine in nature as well).

Referring back to the initial question stated at the beginning of this blog post: “Do women have impact and influence within the judiciary?”, the answer is a definitive “yes”. Although women’s influence is relatively specialized and emphasized regarding cases of sex-discrimination, the impact of women in the judiciary is extensive. When applying this to cases throughout history where women were misjudged by male judges and courts, one can imagine just how differently the stories of Anne Hutchinson’s arrest for speaking out against male preachers, Susan B. Anthony’s arrest for voting before women’s suffrage was legalized, and the supreme court decision of Coker vs. Georgia would have ended with a female judge’s involvement. Throughout history, women have received unfavorable outcomes in court cases simply because of their gender. As a result, women’s complaints have been trivialized and women’s situations have been “misconstrued” more so than men’s. However, with increased representation of women within the justice system, female judges have been able to show that they can make an impact for the better and that their influence should be noted.


3 thoughts on “Women in the American Judiciary: Their Influence and Impact. (2/10)

  1. Did Palmer consider the impact of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings? I know sexual harassment claims went up, did they also influence broader considerations of women’s rights in the courts? Did claims go up 1981-1991 (before Thomas) or does she just look at the whole period?


  2. I think it is very interesting to see how female judges may execute justice more fully than their male counterparts, and knowing about the “paternal” instinct present within judges is sort of strange to me.


  3. The Brock Turner Case still sickens me. It is sad that the harshest punishment he received was from an athletic organization with a lifetime ban from swimming, rather than a legal organization.


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