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Editorial: Taking note of a judge’s gender

Is it time to stop talking about gender already?

That was the implication of a provocative column by former state legislator Tony Soltani on yesterday’s Forum page. He argued that the focus on Landya McCafferty’s gender as she was sworn in last week as a judge for the U.S. District Court in Concord – the first woman to hold the job – was misplaced. Even as McCafferty was praised by the state’s first female U.S. senator and governor (Jeanne Shaheen) and its first female attorney general (now-U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte), Soltani said the emphasis should have been solely on McCafferty’s exemplary skills, smarts, fairness and temperament.

Indeed, here in 21st-century New Hampshire, it’s easy to think such score-keeping is out of date. The state’s entire congressional delegation is female, as is the governor, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the chief justice of the superior court system and the speaker of the New Hampshire House. One speaker at McCafferty’s ceremony even described her as “the last of the firsts.”

Dismissing the happy milestone, however, obscures two still-important points: First, it has taken New Hampshire women a long, long time to achieve anything close to parity in the legal world – and they’re not there yet. Second, it makes an important difference to have women among the state’s top jurists.

Women have been practicing law in New Hampshire for less than a century, and their entry into the profession was slow indeed. The first woman admitted to practice law in New Hampshire was Winnie McLaughlin in 1917. It took three more years for the second: Jennie Blanche Newall in 1920. And it was six more years before the third: Margaret Sheehan Blodgett in 1926. A publication of the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association gives readers a hint at what such pioneers were up against. At the turn of the 20th century, famous lawyer Clarence Darrow told a group of female attorneys, “You can’t be shining lights at the bar because you are too kind. You can never be corporate lawyers because you are not cold-blooded. You have not a high grade of intellect. You can never expect to get the fees men get. I doubt if you (can) ever make a living.” His suggestion to them: spend their time on “the free defense of criminals.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1977 that there were even 100 women practicing law in the state. Even today, women make up only about a third of the nation’s lawyers. Among federal judges, less than a quarter are women.

Does it make a difference to have women sitting on the bench? There are all sorts of studies that attempt to glean gender differences in how judges judge. Interesting, perhaps, but less important than this: Judges are among the most powerful members of our community. Women deserve to be among them in big numbers. When women are in the mix, the courts are more reflective of the nation’s diverse population and no doubt better able to understand the real-world implications of their rulings. And that, in turn, breeds confidence in the court system among those who must interact with it.

From all we’ve read, McCafferty sounds like a superb jurist. How fitting that she also gets to be the first female judge on Concord’s federal bench.

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