It took U.S. 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

Female

Male

0%

100

1900

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

1920

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born.

1940

0.4

1960

5.3

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District of Columbia Circuit.

1980

1993

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Supreme

Court.

2000

9.7

2020

0%

100

Female

Male

0%

100

1900

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

Genevieve Rose Cline

becomes the first

woman appointed

to a federal court.

1920

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

is born.

1940

0.4

1960

5.3

Ginsburg is appointed

to the U.S. Court of Appeals

for the District of Columbia Circuit.

1980

1993

Ginsburg is appointed to the

U.S. Supreme Court.

2000

9.7

2020

0%

100

1900

1920

1928

1933

1960

1980

1993

2000

2020

0%

FEMALE JUDGES

20

MALE JUDGES

40

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

9.7

0.4

5.3

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.

60

80

100

1900

1920

1928

1933

1940

1960

1980

1993

2000

2020

0%

FEMALE JUDGES

20

MALE JUDGES

40

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

0.4

9.7

5.3

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.

60

80

100

1900

1920

1928

1933

1940

1960

1980

1993

2000

2020

0%

20

MALE JUDGES

0.4% of all

federal judges

were women

0.4

5.3

9.7

40

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.

60

80

100

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 probably still a factor in the judiciary’s skewed distribution today.

Gender distribution of newly confirmed federal judges per year

Female

Male

50

100

0%

1977

Carter

1981

Reagan

1989

Bush

1993

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a

large increase in the number

of female federal judges

appointed.

Clinton

2001

Bush

2009

President Barack Obama was

the first president to appoint

more women than men as

federal judges.

Obama

2017

Trump

2020

Some appointments in inauguration years were

made by the previous president

Female

Male

50

100

0%

1977

Carter

1981

Reagan

1989

Bush

1993

1993, the year Ginsburg became a

Supreme Court justice, saw a large

increase in the number of female

federal judges appointed.

Clinton

2001

Bush

2009

President Barack Obama was the first

president to appoint more women than

men as federal judges.

Obama

2017

Trump

2020

Some appointments in inauguration years were

made by the previous president

0%

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

50

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.

Carter

Reagan

Bush

Clinton

Bush

Obama

Trump

100

1977

1981

1989

1993

2001

2009

2020

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

0%

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

50

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.

Carter

Reagan

Bush

Clinton

Bush

Obama

Trump

100

1977

1981

1989

1993

2001

2009

2020

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

0%

FEMALE JUDGES

MALE JUDGES

50

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.

Carter

Reagan

Bush

Clinton

Bush

Obama

Trump

100

1977

1981

1989

1993

2001

2009

2017

2020

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

Every year, the Senate votes to confirm the 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

Dem.

GOP

Male justice appointed by a...

1980

O’Connor

1985

1990

1995

Ginsburg

2000

2005

2010

Sotomayor

Kagan

2015

2020

Democrat

Republican

Male justice appointed by a...

1980

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

1985

1990

Ginsburg

1995

2000

2005

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

2010

Sotomayor

Kagan

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.

2015

2020

Democrat

Republican

Male justice appointed by a...

1980

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

1985

1990

Ginsburg

1995

2000

2005

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

2010

Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

became the

first female

Supreme

Court justice

of color and

the first

Hispanic

member

of the court.

Kagan

Obama’s

appointments

of Sotomayor

and Elena

Kagan

brought a

record three

women to

the court.

2015

2020

Male justice appointed by a...

Democrat

Republican

White

Marshall

Blackmun

Rehnquist

Powell

Stevens

Stewart

Brennan

Warren

1980

O’Connor

Reagan appointed

the first woman

to serve on

the Supreme

Court in 1981.

1985

Scalia

Kennedy

Souter

1990

Thomas

Breyer

Ginsburg

1995

2000

Roberts

2005

When Samuel A.

Alito Jr. replaced

O’Connor,

Ginsburg

became the

only woman

on the Supreme

Court.

Alito

2010

Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

became the

first female

Supreme

Court justice

of color and

the first

Hispanic

member

of the court.

Kagan

Obama’s

appointments

of Sotomayor

and Elena

Kagan

brought a

record three

women to

the court.

2015

Gorsuch

Kavanaugh

2020

Lorem ipsum

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.


From left, Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, 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.