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The are some commonly used legal symbols. The gavel is used for finality and to sound that justice has indeed been served and that the matter has been finalised. The balanced scales of justice symbolise the objective legal standard to show that the law is impartial and balanced and represent the balance between interests of the individual and those of society. A book/scroll/legal tablets symbolises the Constitution as the highest law of the land and that the law is written documented knowledge which must be continuously developed and passed on as legal education. They also hold the judiciary accountable for every judgement and legal process. The judge represents the legal body. Then there is the symbol of the lady justice.

The lady justice is dressed like a goddess. In some versions of the lady justice, there is a snake under her feet which represents lies, corruption and evil. She is blindfolded or has her eyes closed to symbolise that justice must be served impartially without prejudice. There are arguments that justice must not be blind, hence in some statues, the lady justice is not blindfolded. The principles of parole, reduced sentences due to good behaviour, clemency, furlough and consideration of substantial and compelling circumstances in sentencing are based on a lady justice who is not blindfolded and can take into account the circumstances of the parties involved in a dispute in order to decide each case on its own merits.

The lady justice wields a sword as a symbol of authority. Before guns and Constitutions, the power of kings was vested in the sword. The sword also symbolises the principle of just deserts which entails that necessary punishment must be swift and final. The lady justice also carries the scales of justice. The concept of the lady justice can be traced back to mythology. In Greek mythology, Themis was the goddess of justice, law and order. In ancient Egypt, Maat was the goddess of justice, personification of truth and the cosmic order and judicial systems are based on the seven principles of Maat; truth, justice, harmony, balance, order, reciprocity and propriety. The lady justice as we know her today is fashioned after Justitia who was the Roman goddess of justice. In some versions of the statue of Justitia, the goddess is holding the fasces in one hand to symbolise judicial authority and a torch in the other hand to symbolise truth.

Although the principles of justice are based on the Egyptian, Roman and Greek goddesses of justice, only 32% of Superior Court judges in South Africa are female. In America, only 36% of federal judges are female. This means that out of the 167 active judges, only 60 of those are female. In the UK, only 29% of the Superior Court judges are female and 46% of the tribunal court judges are female. The Judicial Services Commission of Zimbabwe recently conducted interviews for judges. Only two of the nominated candidates were female and neither of them was appointed. As disappointing as these statistics are, they are hailed as major developments in the role of women in the judiciary.

Bettisia Gozzadini was the first woman to earn a law degree in 1237 from the University of Bologna in Italy. She is also believed to be the first female university lecturer. Six centuries later, Serbian national, Marija Popovic Mulitinovic became the first woman to be admitted as an attorney in 1847. She did pro-bono work for the entire duration of her legal career. This led to the slow and painful rise of women in the legal profession. Most law schools systematically or out-rightly refused to admit women into their schools. The women who graduated had an uphill battle in fighting for their rightful admission as attorneys. The insiders (male) made up vast conspiracies to protect and promote their own interests at the expense of the interests of women in law. Their decisions cumulatively affected millions of women, particularly the less privileged who had no power to challenge the policy making compass. It was generally believed that women were unfit to practice the law, that allowing one woman to be admitted would open the floodgates for more women to want to practice law and that it was inappropriate for women to handle ‘brutal’ cases.

In Bradwell v State of Illinois, the US Supreme Court, fully constituted of male judges, upheld the arbitrary and discriminatory decision of the Illinois Bar to refuse to admit Myra Bradwell as an attorney because she was a woman with no legal existence and was a mere extension of her husband (doctrine of coverture). Bradley J in the Slaughter House Cases had held that, “the right of any citizen to follow whatever lawful employment he chooses to adopt, submitting himself to all lawful regulations, is one of his most valuable right and one which the legislature of a state cannot invade, whether restrained by its constitution or not.” In a bid to gate-keep the legal profession for sexist reasons in the Bradwell case, the seemingly just and sane judge concluded that, “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The paramount destiny and mission of women is to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.” Bradwell was later officially admitted nunc pro tunc (retroactively to correct the earlier ruling) in 1892. As a result, her legal records symbolically state that she was admitted as an attorney in 1869.

The earliest record of a female judge is that of Deborah from the Bible (1107BC-1067BC) who was the fourth judge monarch to preside over Israel and the only female judge mentioned in the Bible. Esther Morris was the first woman to hold a judicial position when she was appointed as a justice of the peace in 1870. Genevieve Cline became the first female federal court judge in 1928. Anna Chandy became the first female judge in India and the British Empire in 1937. The appointment of female judges in Africa was due to pressure from international organisations, especially the UN World Conferences on Women (Mexico 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985 and Beijing 1995). The Beijing Conference tasked governments with the objective to take measures to ensure women’s access to full and equal participation in power structures and decision making. It was noted that women’s equal participation in decision making was not only necessary for simple justice and democracy but also as a condition for women’s interests to be taken into account. More women were called to the bench after the Beijing Conference as governments were quick to act on the World Action Plan adopted at the conference.

The initial entrance of women into the legal profession and the judiciary in the late 19th century and early 20th century did not lead to an immediate multiplication of female lawyers and jurists. The development of women’s roles in the law came slowly and incrementally, as is the nature of the law. The ‘first’ women in law were frequently isolated, disrespected and denied the scope to practice because laws respond to societal perceptions, they seldom initiate change. Their predicament was unfavourable for incubating large numbers of women in the legal profession. It did not help that the presidents of law societies and judges were all male. The rise of lady justices created a comfortable space for more women to join the legal profession. The first female lawyers and judges worked tirelessly to redefine gender roles in law. They had to be tough yet tender, have a burning desire to win while remembering not to be vindictive, learnt to be the strong link in a chain yet pliable and to be cautiously optimistic with just enough arrogance to not be perceived as incapable.

Women are still under-represented in the legal field due to cultural, economic and political systems. Women are the goddesses of justice and belong on the bench and not just for the sake of fairness. The judiciary will be richer for it if it is diversified. It is true that female judges tend to act and stand for women. That should be a cause for celebration. Women’s issues can only be advanced if women reclaim their power by occupying the legal space and becoming part of the decision making. Hence, here is to the earliest lady justices who broke the glass ceiling, the women who attended law school in a time when they were told they didn’t belong, the women who were told they were in the judiciary space in supportive roles or as tokens (yet one man’s token is an entire generation of women’s breakthrough), the women who were told they were too emotional to be impartial, the women who had to work ten times harder than their male counterparts to be considered as good, the women who have made it possible for the young women of this generation to dream and take up space , the women who fought against racism and sexism. Here is to the Honourable Lady Justice.

Justice Navanethem Pillay
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Remember their names: Genevive Rose Cline (US-1928), Florence Allen Ellinwood (US-1934), Burnita Shelton Matthwes (US-1949) Sarah Tilgmab Hughes (US-1962), Mary Honor Donlon (1955), Joaquina Vega (Nicaragua-1948), Margarita Argas (Argentina- 1970), Thereza Grisolia Tang (Brazil-1954), Tahani al-Gebali (Egypt 2003), Maria Hagemeyer (Germany-1927 later dismissed by the Nazi Regime), Jutta Limbach (Germany 1977), Madija Rizvi (Pakistan-1994), Navanethem Pillay (South Africa-1995), Elizabeth Lane (UK-1962),  Rita Makarau (Zimbabwe-2006), Umu Hawa Tejan-Jalloh (Chief Justice of Sierra Leone-2008), Aloma Mariam Mukhatar (Chief Justice of Nigeria-2012/14), Georgina Wood (Chief Justice of Ghana- 2007), Anastasia Msosa (Chief Justice of Malawi- 2013), Susan Kiefel (Chief Justice of Australia-2017), Mary Gaudron (Austalia-1987), Sandra Day O’Connor (US-1981), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (US-1993), Jimenez Trava (Mexico-1971), Irene Mambilima (Chief Justice of Zambia-2015), Julie Manning (Tanzania-1974), Nemat Abdullah Khair (Chief Justice of Sudan-2019), Lucy Mailula (South Africa-1995), Mandisa Maya (South Africa-2000), Kate O’Regan (South Africa-1994), Zaynab El Adaoui (Morocco-1960), Nthomeng Majara (Chief Justice of Lesotho-2014), Juliette Smaja Zerah (Tunisia-1961).

“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court and I say ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’s been nine men and nobody has ever raised a question about that” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Disclaimer: The author is aware that some of these lady justices have grossly miscarried justice and have handed down questionable judgements and that some of those judgements have served as stumbling blocks in the development of human rights. These lady justices are celebrated for their noteworthy contributions in breaking barriers in the legal profession and safeguarding the position of lady justices. They are the way makers. Their errors of judgement do not make them any less of heroes.


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