When the pressure gets intense, law student Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens likes to wander the hallways of Howard University, examining the faded, framed photos of prominent Black graduates of decades past.
“It’s just really inspiring to be able to see people that look like me that attended this university and became attorneys,” says the first-year student, whose great-great grandmother was born into slavery. “So, when I get stressed out, I like to walk down here and look at all the names and see all the faces.”
Most of the faces are men. But Marchbanks-Owens stops by the photo of one prominent woman, Pauli Murray, a 1944 graduate whose legal theories influenced the landmark school desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education, argued by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. In 1971, Murray also wrote then-President Richard Nixon, mostly tongue in cheek, to suggest Nixon make her the first woman on the high court.
Black women, Marchbanks-Owens points out, have been the backbone of historically of social justice movements. But they’ve barely been visible. And that’s why it’s so meaningful to her that a Black woman will soon be elevated to the Supreme Court.
“It’s just something I never thought I would see,” she says. “And it definitely matters.”
Marchbanks-Owens, 26, is one of many Black women who’ve been buoyed by President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the court. Like them, though, she’s also disheartened by talk from the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who’ve sought to diminish the appointment as discriminating against white people.
These critics have it backward, Marchbanks-Owens says, arguing Black women have had to work harder every step of the way to succeed in an overwhelmingly white profession. The Black woman Biden ends up appointing, she says, “is going to probably be more qualified than anyone else on the bench because … we have learned to be the most qualified. To be able to have a role or a seat at the table, you have to be better.”
Jasmine Armand agrees. The first-year bankruptcy attorney at a Chicago law firm doesn’t want anyone to think: “She got this job because she is Black.” Rather, says Armand, “She got this job because she is remarkable and exceptionally qualified for this role — as countless Black women before her have been.”
Armand said she’s been inspired to think about Malcolm X, and his view that “the least protected person in America is the Black woman. I continue to see how true it is. Oftentimes we’re hard-pressed to see who truly advocates and cares for Black women, besides perhaps other Black women. We are worthy of protection, admiration, investment and encouragement. It will be great to see the appointee receive this and also be in the position to give that to others.”
Indeed, for Armand, 29, the ascension of a Black woman to the highest court will have a crucial impact in terms of people’s access to justice, which “is not just getting people connected to resources,” she says. “It’s, ‘Who is the arbiter of justice?’”
In interviews, women of different ages echoed a common theme: Just seeing a Black woman on the court would have an incalculable effect, especially for young people, like seeing Barack Obama become the first Black president, or watching Kamala Harris rise to the vice presidency. Jemelleh Coes, director of teacher leadership for Mount Holyoke College, thought of the impact on her two young daughters, 9 and 2.
“I am raising them to be as bold as they can be, as thoughtful as they can be, as caring as they can be, as empowering as they can be,” said Coes, 36, who lives in Athens, Georgia. “To be able to look at other women in positions of power for them is paramount.” She noted how her 9-year-old had been transfixed when watching Stacey Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor. “I see the way that they look at Black women in power,” she said. “It’s very different from the ways they look at power in general.”
California mother Jakki McIntosh, 35, hoped that the appointment would reinforce what she tells her daughters, ages 16, 15 and 11. “A lot of times with my girls, I tell them that you can basically be anything that you want to be, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we hear you Mom, but we don’t necessarily see that.’”
A Black woman on the Supreme Court would push back against the idea that they are somehow less capable, said McIntosh, who lives in Colusa, California and also has a 3-year-old son. “(Often) women are looked at as lesser than, and very unfortunately, Black women seem to be looked at as even less than that,” she says.
Jessica Davis, a first-year student at the University of Georgia Law School, remembers wanting as a child to become president. But her teacher thought differently: “I remember my teacher telling me to be more realistic, and to perhaps think about something else, something that was easier and more, as she put it, up my alley.”
“Just thinking about seeing a Black woman on the Supreme Court, the same court that upheld slavery with the Dred Scott decision, the same court that said that we could be ‘separate but equal’ is just amazing.”
Back at Howard’s law school campus in Washington, D.C., Marchbanks-Owens, too, thought of the nation’s legacy of slavery when she heard of Biden’s plans to nominate a Black woman and of her great-great grandmother, who she says was born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation.
“When I think about a Black woman on the bench and when I think just about the legacy of enslavement, it’s very profound to me,” she says.
She also recalls her grandparents watching in amazement when Obama became president, “telling me they never thought they would see something like that in their lifetime. And in my lifetime, I’ve seen that, I’ve seen Kamala Harris become vice president, and now I’m going to see someone who looks like me become a justice on the Supreme Court.”
In fact, Marchbanks-Owens already knows what she’d say to the new justice.
“I think your story is just incredible,” she says she’d tell her. “And I’m happy to be living in a time where something like this is possible for someone who looks like me. … And I would love to work under you. I would love to learn and be mentored by you.”