Here’s a Minnesota first that bears notice: For the first time in the state’s history, half of the state’s 10 judicial districts are headed by women judges.
That milestone was achieved this week when three women — Kathryn Davis Messerich in the south-metro First District, Jodi L. Williamson in the southeastern Minnesota Third District and Michelle Dietrich in the southwestern Minnesota Fifth District — took over as chief justices. Already in that position were Ivy Bernhardson in the Fourth District (Hennepin County) and Sally Tarnowski in northeastern Minnesota’s Sixth District.
That much gender balance in the judiciary might be what Minnesotans have come to expect from the state that made history with a first-in-the-nation female majority on its state Supreme Court. That happened in 1991, courtesy of a last-day-in-office judicial appointment by DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, and it lasted until 1994. A female majority on the state’s high court returned last year with Gov. Mark Dayton’s appointment of Associate Justice Anne McKeig to the seven-member court.
But it’s well to recognize that these are still recent gains, made after long years of struggle to bring the perspectives of women to the third branch of government. Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the first gubernatorial appointments to both the state Supreme Court (Rosalie Wahl) and a district court (Esther Tomljanovich, a future Supreme Court associate justice). Before 1977, a few women had been municipal judges, but the only woman to serve as a district court judge, Susanne Sedgwick, had been first elected, not appointed by a governor.
The gender integration that came to the courts and more since then has been both remarkable and incomplete. In Minnesota, women hold 43 percent of district court judgeships and 32 percent of legislative seats. Nationally in 2015, 19 percent of corporate board directors were female. Those numbers tell of progress but not parity.
Meanwhile, much work remains to adapt society’s norms to the 21st-century reality that the responsibilities of adulthood must be shouldered, and their rewards fairly shared, by both genders. Putting women in high places does not guarantee that work will be done. But it serves nicely as a source of inspiration.