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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Women Justices, Judges, & Attorneys

Only two women served on the U.S. Supreme Court during its first two hundred years of existence, and the Manuscript Division holds the papers of both—Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor portrait. Between 1981 and 1983. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930) donated the first of her papers (71,475 items; 1963-88) to the division in 1991, ten years after her appointment to the Court. These relate to her first five years on the Court and to her career in Arizona as a state senator (1969-75), a Maricopa County Superior Court judge (1975-79), and a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals (1979-81), with the Supreme Court files making up the bulk of the collection. These are divided into three subseries: administrative files, case files, and docket sheets. O'Connor's handwritten notes of the major issues, oral arguments, and opinions of her colleagues highlight her case files, including those relating to Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, a 1982 gender discrimination case; City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, a 1983 abortion rights case; and Grove City College v. Bell, a 1984 Title IX sexual discrimination case. Her incoming correspondence is also of interest. As the first woman justice, O'Connor received hundreds of letters in 1981 from well-wishers, including many from women and girls of all ages inspired by the justice's appointment. In 1988, following her surgery for breast cancer, she received numerous cards and letters from women who had also undergone mastectomies. The O'Connor Papers are not yet open for research use.

In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) joined O'Connor on the Court, and five years later donated to the Library two installments of her papers (16,450 items; 1925-99; bulk 1970-97) covering her academic career as the first tenured woman professor at Columbia University Law School (1972-80), her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (1980-93), and her accomplishments as a pioneering litigator for women's rights, a role which earned her the title “the Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.” Papers relating to many of the constitutional law cases that Ginsburg argued for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s are found here. Files for Reed v. Reed (1971), the landmark case in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an Idaho law that favored the appointment of a man over a woman to act as administrator of an estate, document the first time the Court used the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect a woman's right to equal treatment under the law. Also represented are several cases, such as Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) and Craig v. Boren (1975), in which Ginsburg and others attempted to convince the Court to apply an elevated standard of review, comparable to the standard applicable to race, religion, and national origin, when considering the constitutionality of laws that differentiate on the basis of sex. Other important cases represented in the collection include Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Healy v. Edwards, Califano v. Goldfarb, and Duren v. Missouri. Complementing her ACLU files are scores of speeches and writings reflecting her advocacy of women's issues and her support of the failed Equal Rights Amendment.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing
R. Michael Jenkins, photographer.Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing. July 21, 1993. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

More than fifty years before O'Connor and Ginsburg began their judicial careers, Florence Ellinwood Allen (1884-1966) became the first woman to sit on an American court of last resort when she was appointed an associate justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922. From 1934 to 1959, she served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and was thought by many to be worthy of a Supreme Court nomination. Her papers (2,700 items; 1907-65) relate to her judicial career, her activities on behalf of suffrage and women's rights, and her interest in peace through international law.

Another pioneering judge was Juanita Kidd Stout (1919-1998), who in 1959 became the first African American woman to serve as a judge in Pennsylvania and the first in the country to win election to a court of record. Her obituary called her the “judicial scourge of murder, mayhem, and bad grammar,”31 because she was known to take tough stances on convicted criminals and was adamant about the importance of education to deter crime. Her recently acquired collection (31,000 items; 1929-98) deals primarily with her judicial career.

Although a woman did not become attorney general of the United States until Janet Reno's appointment in 1993, numerous women did serve in the Justice Department before that time, including Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889-1963), a former Los Angeles public defender (with special responsibility for cases involving women), who in 1921 became the second woman to receive an appointment as assistant attorney general and the first to serve an extended term. Although not known as a prohibitionist before her appointment, Willebrandt became one of the fiercest defenders of the Eighteenth Amendment, earning the nickname “Prohibition Portia.” She also was responsible for establishing the first federal prison for women and played an important role in Herbert Hoover's successful presidential campaign. Her papers (2,000 items; 1881-1978; bulk 1921-29), especially her letters to her parents, concern her Supreme Court appearances, social and political life in Washington, Republican Party politics, and the role of women in politics. Additional items relating to her may be found in the papers of Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (26,500 items; 1889-1953; bulk 1925-46), who was attorney general during part of Willebrandt's tenure at the Justice Department.

Miss Mabel Willebrandt and Congressman I.N.[sic] Foster. June 27, 1924. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Deputy attorney general for Pennsylvania Regina Clark McGranery (1907-1975) and her husband James P. McGranery, attorney general of the United States (74,800 items; 1909-75; bulk 1943-75) were active in the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church. Regina's papers reflect the political role of women during the New Deal and document her career as a lawyer and a leader in the Girl Scouts and Woman's National Democratic Club. The couple's law office files contain material on birth control, sterilization, and women's religious organizations.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. “J. K. Stout, Pioneering Judge in Pennsylvania, Is Dead at 79,” New York Times, August 24, 1998, Obituaries, A15. Back to text