As a member of the graduating class of South Texas College in 1957, Joe Kegans practiced law for twenty years before being appointed to the 230th Criminal District Court. One of the earliest women to earn a criminal justice degree in America, and considered posthumously to have been a “pioneer of Texas criminal law,” Kegans was the first woman to sit on the bench as a criminal district court judge in the state of Texas. That was over 30 years ago, and not enough has changed since then.
“When I started in 1981, I was the only sitting woman judge,” said District Court Judge Jane Kauvar, “and then for a period of time there were two others here. And now I’m back to being the only one. It just seems incredible that in 2010 I am back to being the only one.” Indeed, it seems incredible that a decade into the 21st century women remain such a significant minority in criminal justice and law enforcement. Despite all our forward-thinking progress toward gender equality, there are still vastly fewer women than men on the benches and on the beat.
During the presidency of Ronald Reagan only six percent of federal judges were women. Today, women make up only 22 percent of all United States federal judges and 26 percent of all state-level judges. In 1985 only 13 percent of lawyers were female. Today, even though 44 percent of law students in the United States are women only 25 percent will become practicing lawyers. In other words, while women make up nearly half of the law graduates in this country, only a quarter of them will take on the same roles as their male colleagues.
Outside the courts, women’s presence in American law enforcement has remained relatively minimal as well. In 1972, the average proportion of female police officers in the United States was around 2 percent. In 2010, they numbered just over 15 percent. Although many continue to dismiss this disparity by appealing to physiology to justify the lower number of female police officers, women have shown that they can do the job just as well, smaller muscles or not. Subtler factors are at work behind the unequal female presence in criminal justice.
Considering the enormous contribution women have made in various fields of criminal justice, these disparities are all the more striking. Women like Grace M. Fernald blazed the trail in establishing forensic psychology as a legitimate, integral part of the criminal justice system, and it was through the ground-breaking work of Diane Barnes in her studies of postpartum psychosis that we now understand its previously ignored relation to the inconceivable act of infanticide. Women of great renown have also advanced the practice and popular awareness of the amazing science of criminal profiling and proven how an understanding of the criminal mind can be a crucial asset in the efforts of investigators to identify and capture violent offenders.
Yet in spite of the huge contributions of these pioneering scholars, a Google search on “women in forensic psychology” will yield more information on women sufferers of mental disorders who have committed horrific crimes than about the women who literally wrote the books on diagnosis and definition of these conditions. While the outstanding work of these remarkable figures represents the reality of women’s entry into the criminal justice fields, the fact that so few women have entered those fields again suggests that these exceptional few women are those who broke through a barrier that is still holding many others back.
Although women have made significant strides in the “man’s world” of criminal law, it remains plain to see that women are still on far from equal footing in the fields of criminal justice and law. Despite the fact that the way has been opened for women to take these career paths, the numbers don’t add up. The rising number of women in law enforcement has not led to a commensurate rise in their average rank, and male domination of the police force maintains an anti-female status quo.
Until the obstacles to females in criminal justice and law are removed, these areas will remain unjustly masculine professions no matter how equal they appear to be on the surface. In the meantime, it is ironic that the scales that represent the sanctity of justice, themselves held by a female figure, are yet to become gender balanced.
Marie Owens works in security logistics. In her spare time she teaches a female self-defense course and studies law in Washington state.