Vol. 31 No. 1 (January 2021) pp. 1-3

SHORTLISTED: WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS OF THE SUPREME COURT, by Renee Knake Jefferson and Hannah Brenner Johnson. New York: New York University Press, 2020. 287pp. ISBN: 978-1-4798-9591-5.

Reviewed by Tammy A. Sarver, Department of Political Science, Benedictine University. Email:

“Had one woman served on the Court from the 1930s, or two or three or four women from the 1970s, with O’Connor as the fifth in 1981, the cases selected for review on the nation’s highest court surely would have been impacted ... Case outcomes also likely would have been impacted” (p. 169). If read out of context, this quote by the authors of SHORTLISTED might lead one to think that this work is another lamentation on the plight of women seeking to ascend to the higher echelons of political or corporate success without any offer or suggestion of hope. But SHORTLISTED is surely not that. This eloquently written and captivating story of the not insignificant number of women once considered to fill vacancies dating back to the 1930s on the U.S. Supreme Court aims to achieve not only the filling of the major gap in history of those women who ‘could have been’, but also offers strategies for changing the future course of “her-story” by acknowledging these women’s contributions in the struggle for gender equality.

Part I of SHORTLISTED provides an in-depth description of the women who almost had the honor to serve as a Supreme Court justice of the United States. From Florence Allen of whom there is evidence that she may have even been on President Coolidge’s shortlist as early as 1924 to Cornelia Kennedy who was shortlisted by both Presidents Ford and Reagan, we get a glimpse into the professional and personal lives of the women who were ultimately passed over in favor of men who oftentimes were less qualified or political pawns. Even with the confirmation of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, the authors point out, “her nomination marked the beginning of a new chapter in a decades-old saga of persistent gender inequality” (p. 101). Ronald Reagan had the opportunity to fill two more vacancies on the Supreme Court after O’Connor’s appointment and he shortlisted Cynthia Holcomb Hall, Edith Jones, and Pamela Rymer. All these women had impeccable credentials and intelligence, but he ultimately appointed two more men. This trend of shortlisting women continued for the next decade until Ruth Bader Ginsburg was added to the Court in 1993.

Part II of SHORTLISTED further explores the personal and professional lives of the exceptional women who could have had a seat on the Supreme Court. Not only does this in-depth exploration of the shortlisted women’s lives provide for an enjoyable read, it also serves to set the stage for lessons to those in power regarding the need to make structural change and suggestions for doing so – not just only on the U.S. Supreme Court, but in all positions of leadership and power. In Part II, the authors highlight the dangers of tokenism, which is a term they use to describe many of the women who were shortlisted, as well as describing many of the women who actually do ascend to positions of prominence still today. Arguing that tokenism enforces the status quo, leaves one or a few individuals as representatives of diverse minority communities, and exacerbates workplace inequities and incidences of sexual harassment, the authors relate their claims to the obsessive [*2] and unfair societal focus that was (and continues to be) placed on the shortlisted women candidates’ appearances, sexual orientations, ages, and decisions whether or not to have children. Focusing on these double binds, the authors find hope as they write that “Our goal is not to criticize, but instead to find inspiration from our shortlisted sisters as we extract lessons for remedying the remaining gender inequality that persists in positions of leadership and power” (p.142). Noting that these shortlisted women did not always have everything in common simply by virtue of being women, the authors admit the tensions between feminism and racism, motherhood and career, typical versus atypical personal relationships, and even the question of what a woman is to look and dress like. In so doing, they state what most women already know: a perfect work/life balance may never be achieved, but only managed. By exposing these contradictory demands that have historically been placed on women, the authors hope that society can turn its focus away from women’s attributes and life choices and toward their objective qualifications and professional skills.

In the final chapters of SHORTLISTED, the authors do a great job in addressing the ‘what if’ question. That is, what if women had been named as Supreme Court justices as early as 1924? While acknowledging that being a woman does not necessarily mean one supports women’s causes, just as some of the shortlisted women discussed did not support the ERA or other pro-female policies, the authors believe that if the Supreme Court sat female justices earlier than 1981 and in greater numbers., their voices would have resulted in more pro-female case outcomes and thus more female-friendly policies. The authors also pay homage to the empirical studies on judicial performance which find mixed explanations for the decision making of women judges, but stress that their qualitative approach focuses “on how the female experience and presence impacts deliberations, case outcomes, and other leadership decisions” (p. 170). That is what differentiates this work from other studies of gender effects on the Supreme Court.

Finally, in SHORTLISTED, the authors leave us with advice and strategies on how to surmount the shortlist not only on the Supreme Court but in other positions of power and leadership as well. From stressing the importance of earning a law degree (even if one never practices law), to choosing intimate and professional connections carefully, to greater structural changes among our institutions of power (even something as simple as changing the title from “Mr. Justice” to simply “Justice”), we are given a sense of assurance and optimism that women can and will be equally represented in the decisions that shape their lives. And we are left with a short but thought-provoking message that “it is actually ok not to have it all”. (p. 207).

Overall, SHORTLISTED is a perfect read not only for scholars of the United States Supreme Court or judicial decision making, but for anyone hoping to learn from our history about how to brighten our future through systemic change that truly accounts for the diversity that the American populous represents. This book makes a sound argument on the dangers of tokenism and the failure to account for the hazards of underrepresentation, and it does so by using a beautiful and unique methodology to get us there. While many scholarly works leave us yearning for more, SHORTLISTED follows through on its promise to provide practical advice for mechanisms of change and hope for the future. [*3]

© Copyright 2021 by author, Tammy A. Sarver