23 May 2014
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.
Earlier this month, Missouri lost former Governor Joseph Teasdale. As I read the news coverage of “Walkin’ Joe’s” legacy, it occurred to me something was missing from those articles: In 1978, Teasdale became the first governor to appoint a woman to the bench under the nonpartisan court plan. Women previously had served as judges in other parts of the state, by virtue of an election or the occasional appointment to a midterm vacancy, but no governor ever had selected a woman to serve on one of the courts governed by the Missouri Plan.
When Governor Teasdale selected Ann Niederlander to be an associate circuit judge in St. Louis County, she was the first woman elevated to the bench through Missouri’s nonpartisan court plan. Then, in 1979, Teasdale selected Anna Forder to serve as a circuit judge in St. Louis city. Through these appointments, Teasdale opened doors for more women – as well as his successors in office.
Nine years and two governors later, history again was made as women were chosen as judges for Missouri’s appeals court. In 1987, then-Governor John Ashcroft selected Ann Covington for that court’s western district, and the next year, he selected Jean Hamilton to be the first woman to serve on the appeals court’s eastern district. It took another 13 years and another three governors, however, before the first woman was selected for the court of appeals’ southern district – Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer, appointed in 2001 by then-Governor Bob Holden.
The first woman selected for the state’s high court did not occur until 1989, when Ann Covington was appointed by Governor Ashcroft. I now am the third woman to serve as a judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri and its third female chief justice.
We have come a long way since the United States Supreme Court, more than a century ago, upheld Illinois’ denial of a woman’s application for admission to the bar, noting in its 1873 decision: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. … [T]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”
Thanks to the trend begun by Governor Teasdale, we – thankfully – have moved well beyond talking about “firsts” on the bench for Missouri women.