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Women on juries in NY and elsewhere

So The Legal Genealogist did her civic duty on Monday and sat around for most of a day waiting to be excused from jury service.

It isn’t that I wouldn’t like to serve on a jury. It’s the fact that I’m not the most likely candidate to be chosen. I have a law degree. I taught at a law school for 25 years. I still work as a law editor, focusing on issues of law in the state where I live.

The fact that I can be a bit of a smart aleck is only a part of the equation, though I do think the judge I ended up in front of on Monday thought it was a fairly large part.1

But in anticipation of sitting around that day, and since I’m headed off to New York later this week for Genealogy in Bloom, this Saturday’s seminar of the Rochester Genealogical Society, I’d taken a look at New York law on the subject in the blog Monday, focusing on the question of the requirement to appear when summoned.2

First woman juryWhich prompted a friend and fellow genealogist Teri Flack to note, of course, that I wouldn’t have been called at all in New York in colonial or early statehood times. Because, of course, women didn’t serve on juries then.

And she’s absolutely right.

But that raises the question: when did women begin to serve as jurors?

As late as 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was just fine for states to “confine the selection to males, to freeholders, to citizens, to persons within certain ages, or to persons having educational qualifications,”3 and it wasn’t until 1898 that the first state deemed women fit for jury service, and that was Utah.4 That was followed by Washington in 1911.5

As late as 1927, only 19 states allowed women to serve as jurors,6 and most of them exempted women for a wide variety of reasons.

In New York, the first women weren’t empaneled until 1937:

It was reported on this day (5 September 1937) that women had begun serving on juries in New York State for the first time. A New York law permitting, but not requiring, women to serve on juries had become effective on September 1, and the first jury with women had been empaneled in upstate New York. New York became the 22nd state to allow women on juries…7

That law notwithstanding, women still didn’t often serve because New York had wide exemption categories for women — exemptions that were upheld against constitutional challenge by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947.8

Even as late as 1961, the Court said state statutes automatically exempting women from jury service weren’t facially unconstitutional,9 and that didn’t change until — finally — in 1975, the Court struck down gender-based distinctions between jurors.10

So don’t be surprised by those all-male jury lists well into the 20th century.



Image: First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

  1. I really wasn’t being sarcastic when my name was called and I asked the judge if he was sure he wanted me to sit in the jury box since, as I said, “I don’t expect to be here very long.” You see, the case was a legal malpractice case, I was principal editor for the book generally regarded as the Bible on attorney ethics in my state, I knew one of the expert witnesses who was going to testify, and I’ve known and admired the plaintiff’s attorney for more than 30 years. So I really really really wasn’t going to be there very long.
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “The price of citizenship,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Apr 2018 ( : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  3. Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 310 (1880).
  4. Utah Rev. Stat. Ann., Title 35, § 1297 (1898), cited in Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 533 n.13 (1975).
  5. 1911 Laws of Washington, c. 57, cited in Fay v. New York, 332 U.S. 261, 289 n.30 (1947).
  6. See Burnita Shelton Matthews, “The Woman Juror,” 15 Women Lawyers’ Journal (January 1927); PDF, Women’s Legal History, Stanford Law School ( : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  7. ‘Ladies of the Jury’ Make First New York Appearance,” Today in Civil Liberties History ( : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  8. Fay v. New York, 332 U.S. 261 (1947).
  9. Hoyt v. Florida, 368 U.S. 57 (1961).
  10. Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975).
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