January 28, 2010
Sandra Day O'Connor, left, and Elena Kagan, Maureen Mahoney and Wendy Webster Williams. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

Sandra Day O'Connor, left, and Elena Kagan, Maureen Mahoney and Wendy Webster Williams. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

Women Jurists Hold Court at Newseum

Watch video clips from the program

WASHINGTON — "What are we doing about it?"

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor posed that question to a panel of female lawyers regarding the subtle barriers women still face more than 130 years after Belva Lockwood became the first Supreme Court advocate in 1879.

O'Connor, who served 25 years on the Supreme Court before retiring in 2006, moderated the program held Jan. 28 at the Newseum and sponsored by the Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association and the First Amendment Center.

Panelists Wendy Webster Williams, a professor of law at Georgetown University; U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Maureen Mahoney, a partner at Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C., participated in the program titled "Women Advocates of the Supreme Court Bar: Their Day in Court."

Issues such as the dearth of women jurists in many law firms — including inside the Solicitor General's office — balancing work and home, and even what women should wear in the courtroom, were issues they said women continue to confront.

"We're doing better, but it's still a rocky road," said Williams. "I'm impressed with how much hasn't changed."

The panel said women are more likely to represent public interest groups and public law offices at the Supreme Court. 

Kagan, who argued her first case at the Supreme Court in 2009, said women "always have to be aware of the way people are perceiving you." But "in the end, you have to be yourself and have people accept you on your own terms."

Mahoney, who has argued before the Supreme Court 21 times, suggested women "show up as the best prepared and wow them with your talent."

Mahoney described what she called a "breadwinner mentality," where "men think they have to support their families financially, and women are much more likely to think, 'one of my key jobs in life is to nurture my children.'"

"The best thing that could happen," she added, is that [men develop] their "nurturing instinct, which leads to a discussion on paternity leave" and how that has been helpful.

The panelists agreed that an increase in female judges has changed the culture in the courtroom.

O'Connor said she did not think the opinions of female judges at the appellate level carried more weight than those of men.

"There are only so many members on an appellate court," she said. "You're going to take every vote you can get."

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