Ambition, Gender, and the Judiciary

By Williams, Margaret S. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Ambition, Gender, and the Judiciary


Williams, Margaret S., Political Research Quarterly


With the work of scholars like Fox and Lawless (2004) and Sanbonmatsu (2002), the discipline of political science began to understand individual-level explanations for women's representation in state legislatures. Such analysis, however, has not been extended to other branches of government, including state judiciaries. To examine individual-level explanations for representation on state courts, this article examines the results of a survey of Texas attorneys. The results of this research suggest that running for the judiciary is somewhat different from running for other office, and future research needs to explore the variation in ambition across types of offices.

Keywords: gender; judges; ambition

While women increasingly participate in public life across the United States, their participation is not constant across all offices. In 2005, women were 16 percent of state governors, 10 percent of state attorneys general, 22.5 percent of state legislators, and 22 percent of state judges (Center for American Women and Politics 2005; Williams 2004). While few studies find a gender effect in the attainment of office (see, for example, Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994), more recent scholarship suggests that there is a gender difference in ambition to serve in public life (Lawless and Fox 2005). Past studies examining attainment and ambition for office tend to focus solely on legislative office (Black 1972; Buchanan 1978; Burrell 1996; Carroll 1985, 1994; Copeland 1989; Hibbing 1986; Kazee 1994; Maestas 2000; Mezey 1970; Moncrief, Squire, and Jewell 2001 ; Palmer and Simon 2001,2003; Rohde 1979; Schlesinger 1966; Stone, Maisel, and Maestas 2004; for exceptions, see Fox and Lawless 2004; Lawless and Fox 2005).

This article seeks to increase our understanding of women's ambition in political life. Specifically, I examine women's ambition for seats on the state judiciary. To understand judicial ambition, I conducted a survey of a sample of attorneys-the candidate pool for judicial office-in the state of Texas to determine their desire to seek a seat on a state district or appellate court. With few exceptions, political science has failed to explore the variation in the pool of attorneys who could become judges (Heinz and Laumann 1982), and the gender dimension to ambition is rarely considered (Cook 1983). Thus, the importance of this research is twofold. First, it allows political scientists to begin considering the differences in women's rates of election, both among women running for different types of offices and between women and men more generally. Second, the research considers an underexplored institution of government: the judiciary.

There is sufficient reason to think that women would exhibit different levels of ambition for judicial office than past scholars found for other offices. First, women's participation in the legal field, a prerequisite for serving on the state bench, has increased significantly since the 1970s. Women's greater representation in legal careers suggests that there are a significant number of women eligible to serve on the judiciary, more so than would potentially exist for some other offices (Cook 1983). With clear guidelines for serving on the judiciary (typically a minimum number of years practicing law) and a clearly defined eligibility pool, women may feel more qualified to serve on the judiciary than they do to serve in other offices. Ambition among women may be higher for the judiciary than for other offices because of the repeated interaction female attorneys have with the judiciary and due to the importance of clerkships in a legal career. Additionally, serving on the judiciary may be more appealing to women who are faced with the demands of billable hours and limited advancement in the legal profession (see, for example, Epstein 1995; O'Brien 2006; Rhode 2001a, 2001b). The judiciary offers these women the alternative of consistent hours and pay, as well as access to a pipeline of higher level judicial office (Bratton and Spill 2004; Bledsoe 1990; Sapiro 1982; Welch and Kamig 1979). …

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