Today, approximately one-third of active federal judges are women (source: Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, 1789-present). But it took nearly a century and a half of United States history for the first female federal judges to break the judicial glass ceiling. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Genevieve Rose Cline to the U.S. Customs Court (renamed the U.S. Court of International Trade in 1980). It would be six more years before a woman joined an Article III court, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Florence Ellinwood Allen to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
In honor of Women's History Month, the U.S. Courts website profiled these and other history-making women on the federal bench. Three of the federal judges covered were also highlighted 20 years ago in remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Women in the Federal Judiciary: Three Way Pavers and the Exhilarating Change President Carter Wrought (with Laura W. Brill). The piece details the inspiring biographies of Florence Allen, Burnita Matthews (the first woman judge in a U.S. District Court), and Shirley Mount Hufstedlr (who moved from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the nation’s first Secretary of Education). Additional biographical information about these and other influential women in the law can be found at Stanford Law Library's Women's Legal History website.
It should be noted that state courts began to include women on the bench much sooner than the federal judiciary – in some cases, even before statehood. The Wyoming Territory appointed Esther Hobart Morris the first female justice of the peace all the way back in 1870, a full 20 years before Wyoming was admitted to the Union. Florence Allen, appointed to the Sixth Circuit in 1934, had already served on the bench of two Ohio courts since 1920; she was the first elected female state judge in U.S. history. By 1925, Texas had even established a special all-female high court to decide a case involving a popular fraternal organization, which counted all of the state's sitting supreme court justices as its members. The Special Supreme Court of Texas was assembled by the governor after efforts to set up an all-male special tribunal were similarly thwarted by conflicts of interest. The Special Supreme Court of Texas handed down its lone opinion in the case of Johnson v. Darr et al., 114 Tex. 516 (1925) (read on LexisNexis Academic with Duke NetID).
To learn more about the history of women on the bench, search the Duke Libraries Catalog for the subject heading "Women judges – United States". You’ll find titles like First Lady of the Law: Florence Ellinwood Allen and other judicial biographies, as well as works discussing the impact of gender diversity in the courts. For help locating these and other titles, be sure to Ask a Librarian.