Women making history: A woman on the Supreme Court

This post is one of a series of posts in observance of Women’s History Month.

In 1971, a decade before President Ronald Reagan would nominate Sandra Day O’Connor to serve as the first female justice on the Supreme Court in 1981, roughly identical majorities of men (58 percent) and women (57 percent) said they would like to see a woman on the high court. In another question from the 1971 Harris Poll, only 42 percent of women but 50 percent of men said the country was ready to support the appointment of a woman.

Americans applauded the selection of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, with 86 percent telling Gallup they approved of her selection. When the Los Angeles Times asked Americans in 1991 whether George H. W. Bush should name a woman to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, 18 percent said he should try to find a woman, while 80 percent said the sex of the candidate should not figure in Bush’s decision. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas.

Pollsters have asked questions about various presidents’ appointments to the court, and the public appears to believe that appointing a woman is nice, but shouldn’t be required. In four questions asked by Gallup between 2005 and 2010, a small percentage said it would be “essential for Bush to nominate a woman to the Court,” around 30 percent believed it was “a good idea, but not essential,” and more than half thought that it didn’t matter.

In our deeply polarized time, the public narrowly approved in Gallup’s polling of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Gallup pointed out that partisanship has affected public perceptions of nominees since the organization began polling about Supreme Court confirmations in 1987, but that it was far greater in Coney Barrett’s case, with 84 percent of Democrats opposing her confirmation and 89 percent of Republicans supporting it. Her sex wasn’t the issue — her perceived partisan leaning was. Joe Biden has said he plans to appoint a black woman to the court, should one of the justices resign during his term.