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How a former UK cheerleader became the first female federal judge in Kentucky

Judge Jennifer Coffman discussed the impact Title IX had on both her life and her family’s lives.

Photo by: Judge Jennifer Coffman

Judge Jennifer Coffman isn't the typical athlete we talk about when discussing UK athletics, but she’s made a huge impact both on the university and across the bluegrass state.

In an interview with BBN Tonight’s Maggie Davis, Judge Coffman discussed breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes and how Title IX has impacted women across the country, including herself. The stereotype Judge Coffman had to overcome wasn't just being a woman, but being a cheerleader as well.

“Stereotypes of cheerleaders and federal judges,” Coffman asked, “they couldn't be farther apart, right?”

Coffman was a cheerleader for the University of Kentucky in the 1970s. Despite the fact that she says she not an athlete, she loves sports, especially UK sports. In fact, she said she became a cheerleader at UK just so she could travel to UK football and basketball games.

After her cheerleading days, Coffman graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1978, and she immediately started working as a civil rights lawyer upon graduation. The stereotypes she faced being a formal cheerleader pushed her to help others that have been impacted by the same sorts of things.

She said it was several years before she received her first Title IX case and that was really her first introduction to true discrimination.

“That case set the direction of my career,” Coffman said.

While Coffman says she’s never felt discriminated against, she realized that people underestimated her because she always smiles when she talks. She smiled when she came in the courtroom, and she smiled while making presentations to the judge. She said she felt like that gave her an advantage, rather than letting other’s opinions affect her work. She knew she was always prepared, people underestimated her, and she just made the best of it.

On October 22, 1993, Coffman was appointed a United States District Judge for the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky. This was just a continuance of her ability to overcome adversity and stereotypes as the smiling cheerleader was sworn in as Kentucky’s first ever female federal judge.

Just 14 years later, Judge Coffman was elevated to Chief Judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky—the first woman to hold that position as well.

Title IX obviously had a big impact on Judge Coffman’s life, but she wants people to know it’s not just about sports.

“If you talk about Title IX, you think about women’s sports,” Coffman said.” “But it was not a sports gender equity law. The second iteration [of the law] was sports.”

The first iteration of the law was getting women places they’ve never been before—and Coffman definitely made the most of it.

Today, Coffman knows the impact Title IX has made not just on her, but her family as well.

“When I was in college, women in sports was not prevalent,” said Coffman. “My daughter grew up knowing women played sports and that’s thanks to Title IX.”

These days, Coffman is an adjunct professor at the UK College of Law, but she still loves sports and the impact sports makes on people’s lives.

“It’s the greater good that is important,” Coffman said,” “the good of the team and caring about something that is bigger than you is so important.”

That’s what sports is all about and that feeling and understanding wouldn’t have been possible for women without Title IX. Title IX is also how Judge Coffman went from the smiling UK cheerleader to the first female federal judge in the state of Kentucky, and she couldn't be more thankful.