Women's History Month: Female Justices Proof of Social Change
By Csaba Sukosd | March 29, 2019
The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center is full of history.
There are a lot of portraits and sculptures of famous faces, such as George Washington and the seven Ohioans who became U.S. presidents. In most of these images, there's a notable element missing - women. This generation's Ohio Supreme Court justices are in the midst of changing that.
"There does seem to be a level of confidence in our ability to do the job - and do the job well - to do it with a sense of compassion, but also just recognizing being true to what the law means to all people in all walks of life," said Justice Melody Stewart, who in 2018 was the first African-American woman elected to the Court.
In total, only 12 of the 161 justices have been women. In the last 30 years, more females have served the state's high court than males. That shift coincides with a significant social recognition of women. Since Congress passed a public law in 1987, March has been designated as Women's History Month.
"No one ever said to me you can't do this because you're a woman," said Justice Judith French. "So, my experience, I think is very different from the women who came just a generation before me. So, I don't take that for granted."
Along with the maternal encouragement they received, the current ladies of the Court also had cultural motivators. They included the four women justices of the U.S. Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan - as well as social inspirations like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Anne Frank. For Justice French, it was her boss, Betty Montgomery - Ohio's first female attorney general.
"She was a champion for me, and I think that's really important for young women to understand, too, is really the difference. We all will have mentors, men and women that guide us on a daily basis. People that we can emulate," Justice French said.
Since 2003, then-justice Maureen O'Connor started a similar legacy. She was part of the first woman-majority bench for the state's court of last resort, then became the first female to lead it as chief justice in 2010.
"One of the values of that, that I see, is as a role model, for both young men and young women. You know when they say, 'You're such a role model for women,' I hope to say that, 'I'm a role model for men, too,'" said Chief Justice O'Connor.
Having been part of a judiciary evolution in their professional lives, all the justices think that gender shouldn't be relevant. The focus should be on the message, not the messenger.
"When you take the qualifier out of the equation, and be recognized for your talent, and your dedication, and hopefully your vision, I think that that's where we want to be," said Chief Justice O'Connor.