Reshaping the Supreme Court's culture, one woman at a time

In her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted that she would eventually be one of "three, four, perhaps even more women on the high court bench."

It took 17 years, a step back -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was succeeded by Samuel Alito in 2006 -- and a good bit of public frustration voiced by O'Connor, Ginsburg and others.

But President Barack Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to succeed the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens -- following his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor last year to succeed Justice David Souter -- means there could now be three women on the court for the first time in history.

It was a benchmark that women's law groups celebrated as a major step toward a sex parity that has eluded the U.S. Supreme Court compared with the highest courts of several states and countries.

"Even when you had two women, there was still a sense that they were exceptions to the rule," says Marcia Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

That notion, Greenberger adds, was reinforced by how frequently legal advocates would confuse O'Connor and Ginsburg, "even though they did not look anything alike."

O'Connor, who in 1981 made history when she joined the Supreme Court of the United States, referred jokingly to herself by the mouthful moniker of "Fwotsc" (or "First Woman of the Supreme Court") in a 1983 letter to the editor of The New York Times.

Among court watchers and women's judicial advocates, the significance of Kagan's nomination can be boiled down to basic math: In a small and rarefied population of nine, the difference between two and three women can make a significant impact on the culture of the court.

"Any practitioner of diversity will tell you that you can't bring in a few token people and get a real diversity of viewpoint," notes Pamela Harris, the executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at the Georgetown Law Center.

Harris says having three women on the court could also be a powerful "optic" that could potentially change the makeup of the lawyers who argue before it.

"If clients are visualizing the court as a predominantly male entity, they are going to want a lawyer who looks like the people on the bench," she said. "I think this could also be a critical moment in terms of women arguing before the Supreme Court."

Leibovich is a Washington, D.C.-based national political reporter for The New York Times.