Feelings I thought were long relegated to my younger days surfaced this past week as I watched Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation and subsequent swearing-in ceremony. (Photo above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) When I went to law school in the mid-1970’s, ingesting a steady diet of legal opinions penned by men, my few female classmates and I could not even begin to imagine what it might be like to be the judicial authors of decisions that future law students would ponder some day. My class at Georgetown was about 25% women in those days — and that was considered quite a substantial breakthrough. But women judges were few, and none were on the Supreme Court. For most of us young women deconstructing the nuances of famous and infamous legal opinions, the justices were gray, stern old men, all white except the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall.
We dreamed anyway. We hoisted beers or cokes after finals, toasting the smart girls among us who might make it to the Supremes. Most of my classmates then packed up their dreams and picked up their briefcases and sashayed off to clerkships or big law firms, primly correct in the pin-striped Brooks Brothers suits, white tailored shirts and floppy bow ties of the era. (I went into public interest law, where suits and ties were just about banned…) A few years later, Sandra Day O’Connor made history when President Reagan named her as the first woman Supreme Court Justice, and suddenly it seemed that maybe those old dreams were not so exotic. We were excited… and waited… and waited… and the years went by and the dreams dissipated again. The women retired their ridiculous ties and prim blue suits, and perhaps more significant, many retired their other professional dreams as well, stopping out or leaving the firms that once seemed like Emerald City when it turned out that too many were more like sweatshops. New generations of women law students dreamed of more balanced lives, opportunities to have it all without losing their minds; the big jobs seemed farther away than ever. Today, while about half of all law school graduates are women, only about 20% of law firm partners are female. Meanwhile, as women lawyers right-sized their dreams, it took 12 years after Justice O’Connor for another woman to make it to the Supreme Court — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took her oath of office in 1993 — and now we have seen another 16 years pass by until this moment, the ascendance of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Something kept nagging me the whole time I listened to those male Senators moan and complain about Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” speech. I get it about conservatives and politics and the threat that some segments of the population feel when they hear that by the Year 2050 the white majority will be gone; we’ll be a nation with no racial majority, instead, we will be truly a pluralistic country. I get it about the unspoken fears about social change, and the latent racism and sexism that lead to taunts about temperament and an unseemly fixation on casual rhetorical flourishes when what matters in a Supreme Court nominee is her or his clear knowledge of the law, which Sotomayor displayed in abundance.
I finally decided that what really nagged me about those guys who couldn’t let up on the “wise Latina” comment was their willfully clueless attitude toward the tremendous educational importance of role models and big dreams to encourage the rising generations. This cluelessness may well be the best evidence of the persistence of the gender and racial gaps in this society — evidence of the gap between the powerful and the powerless that has fueled revolutions and inspired political theorists since Plato. Those who believe that power is rightfully theirs by dint of birth or personal privilege often do not understand the sheer frustration, abject despair, and raging fury of those who believe that they will never have power. Even when social and political revolutions changed the laws that protected white male power over all women and all people of color, the de facto culture continues to repress, put down, intimidate, discourage too many women, too many people of color who stop out, drop out, give up rather than face impossible odds every day.
Role modeling is an essential educational tool to combat such despair, such feelings of powerlessness. The “wise Latina woman” is NOT an attack on white men, but rather, it’s a call to action — a provocative turn of the phrase, a verbal slap shouting, “You CAN do it!” —- intended to encourage the audience that feels powerless to stop it, cut it out, get up and start moving, stand up and shout, take control of your own destiny.
A girl MUST dream! I’m reading the freshwomen essays again, the powerfully revealing statements of the young women who are about to start their college careers at Trinity. These are stories of powerful dreams, great courage, incredible heartache, longing for success, searching for security and fulfillment. These are young women for whom the powerful role models of women’ s achievement mean so much — from Sonia Sotomayor to Oprah to Michele Obama to Nancy Pelosi to their hard-working mothers who have inspired them every day.
A girl must dream. Justice Sotomayor is the latest example of what a powerful dream can do for a girl once dismissed as unworthy of big achievement. Yes — persistence in school, hard work, savvy contacts — all of those are vital to make that dream come true. But it all starts with a dream, and the skilful encouragement of great role models that show her how to walk right past those taunting boys to get ahead and stay ahead. Success is the best revenge!