American Courts and the Sex Blind Spot: Legitimacy and Representation

By Michele Goodwin & Mariah Lindsay

We argue the legacy of explicit sex bias and discrimination with relation to political rights and social status begins within government, hewn from state and federal lawmaking. As such, male lawmakers and judges conscribed a woman’s role to her home and defined the scope of her independence in the local community and broader society. Politically and legally, women were legal appendages to men—objects of male power (visà- vis their husbands and fathers). In law, women’s roles included sexual chattel to their spouses, care of the home, and producing offspring. Accordingly, women were essential in the home, as law would have it, but unnecessary, and even harmful and sabotaging, to a participatory democracy.

Building from two years of empirical research and examining each federal appeals court’s record on abortion and each judge’s vote on a particular case, this project studies whether women are more likely than their male counterparts to affirm reproductive health rights. We examined 302 cases across each federal appellate circuit, including the District of Columbia and the Federal Circuit. Our findings have both normative and sociological implications. This project tells an important story about the composition of the federal appellate judiciary and the slow climb for women, including women of color, within the elite branches of the courts. This is a story expressed in numbers and it reflects the historical marginalization of women within the law and the problem of homogeneity in the courts.