Emily Goodman, a longtime New York judge, is convinced that Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan advanced because of a New York dynamic that enabled each to see herself as going where others hadn't pushed ahead. Goodman referred to a photograph of Kagan from her Hunter yearbook in which she appeared wearing a justice's robe and holding a gavel.
"Those who came to this early, like Ruth, had to be fierce litigators and advocates," Goodman said. "Minorities, like Sonia, had to be very, very scrappy growing up. As the first woman dean of a male bastion like Harvard Law School, Elena had to have a certain kind of New York oomph."
Ginsburg — who graduated from Columbia University's law school in 1959, before Kagan was born — encountered the anti-woman bias that saturated the legal field in the 1960s.
Although Ginsburg tied for first in her law school class, she could not find work with a New York firm, a fact she attributed to her gender. Thirteen years after graduating, she returned to Columbia, where she became the country's first female tenured law professor.
Sotomayor, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, graduated from Yale Law School 20 years after Ginsburg, but faced her own set of challenges. By then, women were more common in law schools, but there were few Latina students and fewer faculty members, something Sotomayor fought to change in her role as co-chair of a group representing Latino students.
When a Washington, D.C., law firm suggested during a recruitment meeting that Sotomayor had gained entry to Yale through affirmative action, not necessarily through intelligence and hard work, she filed a complaint and won an apology from the firm.
Kagan, although a product of an easier time for young women, confronted her family's rabbi over what she considered outdated attitudes toward girls and apparently became one of the first girls to have a bat mitzvah in her Reconstructionist synagogue near Lincoln Center.
O'Connor had her own brand of grit.
In a 2002 account of her childhood, O'Connor described herself as a self-reliant Arizona cowgirl who grew up without electricity, fixed fences and played with bobcats. After law school, when she could get a job only as a legal secretary, she became a civilian lawyer for the Army and later opened her own firm in a shopping mall.
Of course, great women come from across America, said Judith Shapiro, who during her 14 years as president of Barnard College said she was ceaselessly impressed by the gifted women who turned up there from all corners of the globe.
"Oh, we New Yorkers sometimes get carried away with our belief in ourselves, with our belief that we live at the center of the world," Shapiro said.
She paused and added,
"But you have to admit, there's a density of wit, irony and humor here that helps women become strong. I mean, three justices all from New York? Not bad."