How can a jury of peers be guaranteed when it excludes a large number of possible peers?
There is no good answer to this question. It simply cannot be done. The right to a trial by jury - an impartial jury of peers - is one of the principal American rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. And of course, as we have seen throughout history time and again, women were largely excluded from this right. Women were prohibited from serving on juries due to a “defect of sex” as stated in the English common law and because of the widely held belief that their primary role was in the home. As a result, most American juries were not representative of the population. This is not a jury of peers, but of the unfairly privileged.
This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. We all can name the year women earned the right to vote, but too often we forget the many other achievements that were still in the making. Yes, women’s suffrage was accomplished in 1920, but did you know women were prohibited from serving on juries in Massachusetts until 1950? 30 years later! How is this possible?
The anti-suffrage movement played a crucial role in keeping women off of juries, particularly in Massachusetts. Many anti-suffragists argued that giving women the right to vote implied the right to serve on juries, which was “unthinkable.” They believed that women would lack the skills necessary to come to an objective decision in court. Various cartoons were published solely to persuade states to prohibit women from jury duty; one anti-suffragist and political cartoonist Kenneth Russel Chamberlain depicted the imagined effects in the illustration above, arguing “women are too sentimental.”
This notion that women were ill-equipped to serve on juries came from the widely-held belief that their sole responsibility was in the home. It was so commonly accepted by Americans that proponents of women on juries often incorporated this assumption into their argument. Supporters turned the roadblock of the household obligation into a qualifying factor: since women stayed primarily in the home, they had less experience on juries and would therefore be more careful in consideration as well as objective and impartial in decision-making.
Still, opponents of women jurors cried that women were simply too emotional to handle jury duty; women would be “confronted with unseemly matters” and could be “embarrassed” by court cases. After gaining traction, this idea made its way into the juror service law in 1949. The law, which granted women the right to serve on juries in Massachusetts, limited jury service to be voluntary for women and allowed the judge to bar women from service if the case would “embarrass them.”
However, this did not stop the determined women of Massachusetts from serving when they could, once the women-on-juries law was passed. The "Oak Bluffs women," the first two women to sit on a jury of the Massachusetts superior court, were “thrilled” to be in a courtroom for the very first time. The first five women from Massachusetts selected for federal grand jury in 1950 (two of the five women pictured here) were quite excited with the prospects of serving and had a lot of confidence in their abilities. One of the women, 55-year-old Edythe Sullivan from Worcester, saw the opportunity as “a welcome change.” She even told the Boston Herald that “women [may] end up doing a much better job than men!”
In the federal case, half of the women selected claimed exemption -- because they could. It wasn’t until 1975, in the Supreme Court decision Taylor v. Louisiana, that courts were required to treat women jurors equally to men. When only 10% of the jury was female despite the fact that 53% of eligible jurors were women, defendant Billy Taylor filed to reject the jury but was dismissed by the state. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled “a representative cross section of the community” is a necessary part of a jury of peers, which is validated by the sixth amendment. Now women could no longer claim exemption from jury duty; they were required to serve alongside men. In 1975.
As I sat down to write this article, I was absolutely shocked. My initial response was: Why is no one talking about this?! Women were not even permitted on juries in Massachusetts until 1950, much less required to serve until 1975! Even then the Supreme Court had to decide for the nation. It is all kinds of ridiculous to me that women were banned from jury duty for so long and that this part of history is not even acknowledged. As a rising freshman in college, I am looking forward to four more years of education. Education where I want to learn about history so that it is not repeated. So that I do not repeat it.
We live in a world that so desperately needs justice and equity. If we could not find fair representation in our justice system until 45 years ago (and even still, there is more work to be done) why do we not recognize that? Why is it swept under the rug? What are the consequences of this ignorance about our past?
This critical turning point in the women’s rights movement cannot go unnoticed, or else we are sure to repeat history. We need to recognize where we have failed in order to succeed and find true justice, even when our system is hurting right now. Where can we find justice?
-Amy Palmer, local student and guest blogger
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.