Female judges were a rarity when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born. They still are.

September 21 at 10:44 PM

It took United States presidents almost a century and a half to appoint a female federal judge. In 1928, 139 years after the Judiciary Act of 1789 established the court system and five years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Genevieve Rose Cline to the U.S. Customs Court.

For over 50 years after Cline’s historic appointment, women still occupied less than 5 percent of all federal judgeships, according to the Federal Judicial Center. Another 35 years passed until a quarter of all federal judges were women — still a small minority.

Gender distribution of sitting members of the federal judiciary

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0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born.

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Supreme

Court.

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born.

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Ginsburg is appointed to the

U.S. Supreme Court.

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Ginsburg is

appointed to the

U.S. Supreme Court.

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

Ruth Bader

Ginsburg

is born in

Brooklyn.

Ginsburg is

appointed to the

U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District

of Columbia Circuit.

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Supreme

Court.

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born in Brooklyn.

Ginsburg is

appointed to the

U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District

of Columbia Circuit.

MALE JUDGES

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Ginsburg is appointed to the

U.S. Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born in Brooklyn.

Ginsburg is

appointed to the

U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District

of Columbia.

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

Ginsburg was born in 1933, when only 0.4 percent of all sitting federal judges were women. Later in life, her trailblazing work with the American Civil Liberties Union throughout the 1970s in breaking down gender barriers — along with her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — helped start a period of change. By the day she took the oath of office for her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, nearly 10 percent of all federal judges were women.

But it has been slow progress. Today, women still make up only 27 percent of all federal judges. Change has been gradual partly because the path to a federal judgeship is so long.

“If there was sexism in the admission to law schools in the 1980s, it’s going to affect how many women judges we have today,” said Amanda Frost, professor of law and government at the American University Washington College of Law.

Federal judges receive lifetime appointments, usually following years of education and work at law firms. Many judges appointed today started their careers before Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second-ever female Supreme Court justice in U.S. history. That long arc means gender discrimination and sexist hiring practices from that time period are likely still a factor in the judiciary’s skewed distribution today.

Gender distribution of newly confirmed federal judges per year

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!important;text-align:right !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-xsmall .g-pstyle2{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:14px !important;text-align:right !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-xsmall .g-pstyle3{font-size:13px !important;line-height:16px !important;height:16px !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-xsmall .g-pstyle4{height:14px !important;text-align:center !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-xsmall .g-pstyle5{height:14px !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-xsmall .g-pstyle6{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:14px !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-medium{position:relative;overflow:hidden}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-medium p{font-family:FranklinITCProLight,FranklinITCStdLight,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;font-size:12px !important;line-height:14px !important;height:auto !important;filter:alpha(opacity=100) !important;-ms-filter:progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.Alpha(Opacity=100) !important;opacity:1 !important;letter-spacing:0 !important;text-align:left !important;color:rgb(0,0,0) !important;text-transform:none !important;padding-bottom:0 !important;padding-top:0 !important;mix-blend-mode:normal !important;font-style:normal !important;position:static !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-medium .g-pstyle0{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:14px !important;text-align:right !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-medium .g-pstyle1{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;font-size:13px !important;line-height:16px !important;height:16px !important;text-align:right !important;color:rgb(166,109,53) !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-medium .g-pstyle2{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;font-size:13px 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!important;text-align:left !important;color:rgb(0,0,0) !important;text-transform:none !important;padding-bottom:0 !important;padding-top:0 !important;mix-blend-mode:normal !important;font-style:normal !important;position:static !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-large .g-pstyle0{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:17px !important;text-align:right !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-large .g-pstyle1{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:17px !important;text-align:right !important;color:rgb(166,109,53) !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-large .g-pstyle2{font-family:FranklinITCProBold,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif !important;height:17px !important;text-align:right !important;color:rgb(153,153,153) !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-large .g-pstyle3{height:17px !important;text-align:right !important}#g-GinsburgCourtGender-ConfirmedJudges-v2-large 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1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a

large increase in the number

of female federal judges

appointed.

President Barack Obama was

the first president to appoint

more women than men as

federal judges.

Some appointments in inauguration years were

made by the previous president

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a large

increase in the number of female

federal judges appointed.

President Barack Obama was the first

president to appoint more women than

men as federal judges.

Some appointments in inauguration years were

made by the previous president

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a large

increase in the number of female

federal judges appointed.

President Barack Obama was the

first president to appoint more

women than men as federal judges.

Some appointments in inauguration years were made by the previous president.

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a large

increase in the number of female

federal judges appointed.

President Barack Obama was the

first president to appoint more

women than men as federal judges.

Some appointments in inauguration years were made by the previous president.

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a large

increase in the number of female

federal judges appointed.

President Barack Obama was the first

president to appoint more women than

men as federal judges.

Some appointments in inauguration years were made by the previous president.

Every year, the Senate votes to confirm the new federal judges a president nominates. During part of the Obama administration, newly confirmed female federal judges outnumbered newly confirmed male judges for the first time in U.S. history. This increase did not continue in the Trump administration.

Nearly two centuries after America’s founding, the country finally saw its first female Supreme Court justice. President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to a federal court just a year earlier.

Supreme Court justices in the past 40 years

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Male justice appointed by a…

O’Connor

Republican

Male justice appointed by a…

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

Sonia

Sotomayor

became the

first female

Supreme

Court justice

of color and

the first

Hispanic

member

of the court.

Obama’s

appointments

of Sotomayor

and Elena

Kagan brought

a record three

women to

the court.

Republican

Male justice appointed by a…

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

Sonia Sotomayor

became the

first female

Supreme

Court justice

of color and

the first

Hispanic

member

of the court.

Obama’s

appointments

of Sotomayor

and KElena

Kagan

brought a

record three

women to

the court.

Male justice appointed by a…

Republican

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

Sonia Sotomayor

became the

first female

Supreme

Court justice

of color and

the first

Hispanic

member

of the court.

Obama’s

appointments

of Sotomayor

and Elena

Kagan

brought a

record three

women to

the court.

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Since Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in, three other women have become Supreme Court justices, Ginsburg being the first one to follow. All three of them have been appointed by Democratic presidents. But in that same period, three times more men have been confirmed for the same position.

Despite the judges confirmed during the Trump administration being over three-quarters male (including two White, male Supreme Court justices), the president has said he will appoint a woman to replace Justice Ginsburg.


Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, left, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a Women’s History Month event in 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Though the U.S. judiciary has come a long way, it is still far from equally representing women or non-binary genders. As Ginsburg famously said when talking about women in the Supreme Court at the University of Colorado in 2012, “When I’m sometimes asked, ‘When will there be enough?’ and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked, but there have been nine men and nobody ever raised a question about that.”

Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed to this report.

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