Honoring Women Judges

By Sobel, Allan D. | Judicature, November/December 2004 | Go to article overview

Honoring Women Judges


Sobel, Allan D., Judicature


On November 18, AJS celebrated the careers of six women who formerly held judicial office in Iowa: the late Lynn Brady Neuhaus, Margaret Briles, Janet Johnson, Linda Neuman, Patricia Houlihan, and Linda Reade. Drake University Law School, the Iowa State Bar Association, Jordan Creek Town Center, the National Association of Women Judges, and Dwight D. Opperman co-sponsored this important event, which was held at the Iowa Judicial Branch Building.

Last March, I attended a ceremony in Milwaukee where Wisconsin's former women jurists were recognized in a very impressive and inspirational ceremony. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson explained the importance to today's children and future generations of confirming that any citizen, no matter what race, gender, or ethnic background, who aspires to be a judge, shall have the opportunity to attain the position. That has not always been the case, and I came away from the event in Milwaukee convinced that it is right to recognize those few women who in years past broke through the gender barrier.

AJS staff member Dawn Buzynski prepared a brief history of women judges for the Iowa ceremony. The Iowa story is very similar to that of many other states. It is only in the past few decades that women in any significant number have become judges.

Borrowing heavily from Dawn's work, I will give you a glimpse of the national and Iowa experiences.

Even before the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, women were serving as judges in our country. In 1870 Esther Morris, who incidentally was not a lawyer, was appointed as justice of the peace in the Wyoming Territory and became the first woman judge in the United States. The second woman judge, Manila Ricker, took office in the District of Columbia in 1884. The only other woman judge before the close of the nineteenth century was Carrie Burnham Kilgore in Pennsylvania.

The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. At that time there were only six women judges in the nation. Florence E. Alien became the first elected woman judge when she won a seat on the Court of Common Pleas in Cleveland, Ohio, against nine men in 1921. Judge Alien was elected in 1923 to the Ohio Supreme Court. In 1934, Judge Alien became the first woman Article III judge, appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Judge Alien rose to chief judge of the Sixth Circuit in 1959.

Prior to the Carter administration, only 30 women were appointed to Article III judgeships. President Carter appointed 40 women to federal judgeships. However, it was not until 2002 that Judge Linda Reade, one of our honorees, became the first Iowa woman to be appointed to an Article III judicial position. Moreover, to this day, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy, a former AJS Board Chair, is the only woman in the history of the Eighth Circuit to be appointed to that court. …

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