September Feminist Four

Women in STEM

Calling Balls and Strikes

Whether in the courtroom or on the playing field, women have been serving as judges, regulators, and referees for 75 years and counting.

Burnita Shelton Matthews (1894-1988)


In 1949, President Harry Truman appointed Burnita Shelton Matthews to the U.S District Court for Washington D.C. Judge Matthews was the first woman to serve as a judge on a District Court, and followed a handful of women who had been elected to state court judgeships beginning in the early 1920s. Her distinguished career on the federal bench included service on both the US Court of Appeals and the US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.

Throughout her tenure, Judge Matthews only hired women to be her law clerks, giving other female attorneys the opportunity to succeed. While many men doubted Judge Matthews throughout her career, the sharp analytical thinking revealed in her reasoned opinions helped counter the misogynistic stigma surrounding her legal ability. She continued to serve as a federal appellate judge until her death in 1988.

“An Equal Rights Amendment would secure equality of legal rights for women as far as they can be secured by the law.”

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-2015)


In September 1960, her very first month on the board of the FDA, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey made history by refusing to approve the prescription pill, thalidomide, for the treatment of morning sickness and insomnia, citing inadequate testing and information. Dr. Kelsey faced enormous pressure from pharmaceutical companies, who had successfully gotten the drug approved in Canada and Western European Countries. Only one year later, reports of thalidomide causing severe birth defects in over 4,000 children arose in the U.K. and Germany.

Rarely does anyone receive credit for averting a disaster, but in 1962, John F. Kennedy awarded Dr. Kelsey the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service for her exceptional judgment which prevented a national tragedy. Dr. Kelsey was the second woman to ever receive this prestigious award, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

Violet Palmer (1964 – )


In 1997, Violet Palmer became the first female and first openly gay referee to officiate an NBA game. Throughout her career as a basketball referee, Palmer officiated over 900 games before retiring to oversee NBA operations in 2016. Palmer officiated nine separate postseason games throughout the course of six seasons, a significant accomplishment few referees, male or female, attain. At the start of her NBA career, Palmer was criticized for joining what former basketball player Charles Barkely described as a “man’s game.” Palmer’s professional demeanor on and off the court, as well as her flawless performance, silenced critics and helped normalize the notion of female referees.

Sarah Thomas (1973 – )


Though not the first woman to officiate an NFL game, Sarah Thomas was the first woman to be hired as a full-time official in 2015, and has officiated seven seasons since then. In 2019, Thomas became the first woman to officiate an NFL postseason game. Given the high
profile of championship games, the appointment of the referee is a significant honor afforded only to the best of the best.

“I didn’t set out to be first or a pioneer, but I will embrace it if it does happen.”

About the Feminist Four

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The Feminist Four is a monthly newsletter that describes four ways feminists leveraged their cultural and political influence to fight for women’s equality in the US. It is part of the LWV-BHNPS’ ongoing Songs of the Suffragists Project, which includes a bookdocumentary film, and discussion guide. Click on the photos in this email if you would like to learn more about the described topics. Support our project by buying our book. And please reply by email if you would like help presenting a virtual Songs of the Suffragists program in your community!

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