Iowa behind in promoting women

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: October 7 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:36 am in
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By Adrien Wing

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I have been teaching and writing about women’s rights at the University of Iowa College of Law for more than 25 years, and in that time, I have been delighted to see opportunities for women expand.

President Barack Obama recently spoke about the importance of having female, professional role models for young girls. Speaking on the 40th anniversary of Title IX — the federal law that requires equality for males and females in education, and which has ignited a firestorm of success in female sports — Obama declared, “The women who grew up with Title IX now pioneer scientific breakthroughs, run thriving businesses, govern states, and, yes, coach varsity teams. Because they do, today’s young women grow up hearing fewer voices that tell them ‘You can’t,’ and more voices that tell them ‘You can.’”

For the female law students I teach, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and others have presented strong images of the possibilities for women in the presidential cabinet. Today, my female students also can look to the three women associate justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and perhaps more clearly see themselves in their position.

While, nationally, the lives of women in government, education and business look more promising than ever, the picture is much bleaker in our state. Iowa is only one of two states — the other is Mississippi — to have never had a female governor, representative in the U.S. House, or a U.S. senator.

And, when Gov. Terry Branstad decided not to appoint my colleague Angela Onwuachi-Willig to the Iowa Supreme Court in 2011, Iowa joined Idaho as one of only two states to have an all-white male supreme court, and Idaho and Indiana as one of only three states to have an all-male supreme court.

However, pointing out this disparity between men and women alone is not enough. As an African-American female, I have specialized in looking at the accomplishments of women of color. In examining both race and sex on the bench, the representation of women of color in positions of prominence is abysmal.

In 2010, more than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education and more than 40 years after a string of federal anti-discrimination statutes, Iowa received only its first African-American female judge when Romonda Belcher-Ford was appointed to the position of state district associate judge. While there have been white women who have served as federal magistrate and U.S. District Court judges in Iowa, no woman of color has ever been a judge on these courts.

Soon, there will be a judicial vacancy for Iowa on the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, as Judge Michael Melloy takes senior status on the federal appellate court that covers Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. No woman has ever served Iowa in this capacity. In fact, in the entire history of the Eighth Circuit, only one woman out of 61 judges has ever served on the court. Diana Murphy, 74, of Minnesota still sits on the court. As noted by the Infinity Project, which is trying to get another woman on this court, the Eighth Circuit bench is only one retirement away from having no women.

During his speech about Title IX, Obama also said, “[A]s a parent, you’ll do anything to make sure [your child] grows up believing she can take that ambition as far as she wants; that your child will embrace that quintessentially American idea that she can go as far as her talents will take her.”

One day, I hope that my granddaughters will look up at our federal appellate judges, state supreme court judges, governors, and congressional representatives in Iowa and see a reflection of themselves and know visually, too, what this means about how far their wonderful talents may take them.

Adrien Wing is the Bessie Dutton Murray professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law. Comments: adrien-wing@uiowa.edu

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