The feminine face of justice

The feminine face of justice

Though women until quite recently had no role to play in the legal world, justice has always been represented in a feminine way. Now that more women are studying law and entering the legal professions, justice will finally get an earthly feminine face.

Everyone has seen the statues of Lady Justice – the blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales and a sword – that can be found in or outside court buildings all over the Western world. For centuries she has been the visible representation of justice, and this is rather strange when we realize that until a few decades ago women had no active role of any importance to play in the legal world.

Why not a God of Justice?

One would think that in a male-dominated world it would have been logical to imagine justice in a masculine way. After all, when Christianity was still prominent on the Western agenda, God was considered the Supreme Ruler, administering justice to the whole of His Creation through the laws laid down in his Ten Commandments. And we did have the image of the old man who sternly looked down from heaven on his creation below. With this in mind, we may wonder why a prominent female figure was chosen to represent justice instead.

A harmless allegory

It’s quite obvious that it was not a question of choice at all, since we’re dealing here with the continuation of a deeply ingrained tradition. Because we have inherited our law system from the Romans, it’s understandable that the Roman Goddess Justitia –who represented one of the four cardinal virtues – came with it. Reduced in shape to a mere allegory, she was quite harmless compared to the power of God Almighty.

Pre-Roman justice

Although nowadays many people do not believe in God anymore, the allegorical presence of Lady Justice has remained. Perhaps now is the time to realize that she has a long history extending back beyond the Roman Empire. In Classical Greece, for instance, justice was the realm of the Goddesses Themis and Dike, and in ancient Egypt it was the realm of the Goddess Maat. These are not new discoveries, but well-established facts that can be read in any good book on mythology (and even on Wikipedia). This long tradition points to the fact that it might be quite natural for us humans to give justice a feminine face.

The image and the word

2500 years ago the Taoist sage Lao Tzu stated (as quoted by Claudio Naranjo in Healing Civilization): ‘When the original harmony was lost, laws arose.’ I think images like Lady Justice and her predecessors were not only created to inspire us to ‘do justice’ to offenders but also to help us rediscover that original harmony. Their long tradition reminds us that books and law codes are a late invention and always rest on the foundations of unwritten law.
Fortunately this unwritten law is still as powerful as ever. Every now and then it is experienced (by everyone) as a deeply felt sense of justice, powered by a vision of the good life, and as an innate care for other people, for animals and for the environment. I think it’s no coincidence that we have inherited the idea of justice through an image, and a female one at that. As I have argued in a previous blog: images are far more powerful than words.

The times they are a-changin’

We have left the days behind us when only men were working in the legal world. Since 1980 the number of female students has risen sharply in Dutch universities, and since 2005 they even outnumber the male students, as was reported in the news recently. This trend has also manifested itself at Leiden Law School. In the master programmes of criminal law and criminology the female students form a large majority.
It won’t be long, I think, before women will outnumber men in the legal professions too. When this happens, for the first time in history the spirit of Lady Justice will primarily be embodied by women – and justice will finally get an earthly feminine face.

1 Comment

Kevin Walsh

Good blog! Same trend in Ireland, and right now both the Chief Justice and the Attorney General are both women.

Add a comment