June 2012Volume 17Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

The effect of gender in a judicial race

In the spirit of celebrating women in the judiciary, I spoke with two Illinois women judges, and asked them to share their experiences as female judicial candidates. Assuming that the experience would be much different for a woman candidate than a man and that being a woman candidate must have played a significant role in their campaign, I was pleasantly surprised that both Judge Gorman and Justice Wright found that running for a judicial position was not much different for a woman than it was for a man. Justice Wright summarized it well when stating, “forget you are a woman and consider yourself the best candidate. The days are gone when we can focus on our own gender as a reason to run or not to run. If you believe you are the best, forget you are a woman and they will forget you are a woman.”

For both Tenth Judicial Circuit Judge Kate Gorman and Third District Appellate Justice Vicki Wright, who is the most qualified candidate is the most important factor in a judicial race and gender is not a relevant factor; however, gender can have a positive result. Judge Gorman believes that gender is irrelevant from the standpoint of whether the candidate can do a good job. She stated, “I received support because people viewed me as competent, and I had the experience, not because I was a woman.” Similarly, Justice Wright stated “I didn’t receive negativity based on gender but because of lack of political experience, oddly enough a factor I consider to be an attribute on the bench.”

Judge Gorman relayed that women becoming judges does have a positive result because younger women and girls are then able to see a woman on the bench and as a result truly believe that women are capable of doing that job, not just the jobs thought to be conventionally for women. Justice Wright also relayed that she is very proud of the female judiciary in Illinois.

When discussing whether women are more reluctant to campaign for a judicial position, Justice Wright stated that she cannot speak to why other women dropped out of her race in particular and that she ran not because the Appellate court needed a woman, but because she thought it needed trial court experience. Judge Gorman shared that “running for public office is an undertaking that takes time and money. Regardless of gender, it is a commitment that takes away from your family. The decision to run for public office is one that requires measured and thoughtful consideration because it is a grueling process.” Judge Gorman further commented, “my decision had little to do with my gender other than as I personally fit into my family unit. My husband and I both have demanding jobs and my concern was for my children.”

While both judges seemed to feel their judicial campaigns were only slightly, if at all, impacted by their gender, both had some experience with gender bias. Justice Wright relayed that as a prosecutor she was one of the first female trial attorneys in her area and she was more tolerated in juvenile court than in felony court. She stated, “some of my rulings on the trial bench were identical to those of male judges and I was more heavily criticized.” Judge Gorman shared that “unfortunately, some individuals may believe a female is not suited for the position.” For example, during Judge Gorman’s campaign, one older gentlemen asked her “what is a little girl like you doing running for Judge?”

In sum, it is nice to be able to report that in some of Illinois’ more recent judicial races, gender is not a controlling factor. One thing the Women and the Law Committee focused on in its recent celebration of women in the judiciary at Mt. Vernon were the challenges that women in Illinois’ history have faced when trying to join the legal profession and the judiciary. My conversations with Judge Gorman and Justice Wright proved that at least some of the challenges of yesterday have slowly faded and today the woman candidate does not have to deal with their gender on top of all of the other challenges that come with a grueling election process. I would like to personally thank Justice Vicki Wright and Judge Kate Gorman for speaking with me and sharing their encouraging viewpoints.

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