Sotomayor would make a hell of a guy

But since she's a woman, her profile in the New York Times reads like a warning: Success makes you lonely, girls

By Kate Harding
Published July 10, 2009 6:11PM (EDT)

On Wednesday, after an article that will run in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine was published online, my Twitter feed was inundated with tweets along the lines of, "I heart Ruth Bader Ginsburg." The 76-year-old Supreme Court justice spent 90 minutes speaking to journalist Emily Bazelon, and the resulting interview is rich with quotes that make lady blogger hearts go pitter-patter. Discussing the nomination of Sonia Sotmayor, Ginsburg speaks frankly and powerfully about the double standards that plague women in her profession.

Ginsburg's descriptions of what it used to be like for women, and what it's still like ("My basic concern about being all alone [as a female justice] was the public got the wrong perception of the court. It just doesn't look right in the year 2009."), are a sobering rejoinder to those who would argue that we live in a pure meritocracy. Or that we're living in a post-feminist world, where professional women aren't subject to any greater or nastier scrutiny than their male counterparts. Take, for example, her anecdotes about media coverage she's received. In one, she tells of accidentally interrupting now retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor during an oral argument. Ginsburg apologized when she realized her fellow justice hadn't finished speaking, and O'Connor "said, It's O.K., Ruth. The guys do it to each other all the time, they step on each other's questions. And then there appeared an item in USA Today, and the headline was something like 'Rude Ruth Interrupts Sandra.'" When asked how having more women on the court might change the dynamic, she has another story: "I think back to the days when -- I don't know who it was-- when I think Truman suggested the possibility of a woman as a justice. Someone said we have these conferences and men are talking to men and sometimes we loosen our ties, sometimes even take off our shoes. The notion was that they would be inhibited from doing that if women were around. I don't know how many times I've kicked off my shoes. Including the time some reporter said something like, it took me a long time to get up from the bench. They worried, was I frail? To be truthful I had kicked off my shoes, and I couldn't find my right shoe; it traveled way underneath."

A Times article on Sotomayor that appeared in the print edition today is another reminder to be skeptical of how the media filters the actions of powerful women. Ostensibly focusing on Sotomayor's deep New York roots (it's for the regional section), it tells the inspiring story of a tremendously successful and hard-working woman, if you're already inclined to see her that way. If you're not -- if you're inclined to see her as, say, a godless, overambitious, underqualified woman who's played the race and sex "cards" to get ahead professionally, at the expense of a normal personal life -- well, that's there, too. In abundance. You will learn, for instance, that "like many New York Roman Catholics, she has let her adult observance lapse," which is a remarkably efficient way of reinforcing right-wing stereotypes about heathen east coast urban liberals, as long as you leave out the fact that almost 60 percent of self-identified Catholics around the country don't attend services regularly. You will also learn that her savings "hover near zero," owing to tastes that "run toward redecorating and white Saabs" (how many white Saabs do you suppose she owns?), and her being "generous to the point of near profligacy." And you thought benevolence couldn't be spun as a personal failing! Silly reader!

Where Sotomayor has really "failed," though, is in her love life. She married her high school sweetheart, and then amicably divorced him when their lives went in different directions. She was recently engaged again, but that didn't work out, either. Why not? Oh, because she's a pathological workaholic with stunted interpersonal skills. Former colleague Steven Skulnick notes of the broken engagement, "It was very tough on Sonia. It was a real adult relationship." As opposed to the fake, immature ones career gals usually have, I guess. And Sotomayor herself once said publicly to ex-fiance Peter White, "You have made me a whole person, filling not just the voids of emptiness that existed before you, but making me a better, a more loving and a more generous person." (One wonders how close she was to "profligacy" before him.) Voids of emptiness, people. We're meant to understand that these were not just the sweet, sappy words of a woman in love -- the kind we all profess and then cringe at later, if the love goes south -- but a deep insight into her tragic personal life. No husband, no kids, insane work week. Let that be a warning to you, girls: Success makes you lonely. Empty. Incapable of handling adult relationships. Nobody wants to turn out like Sonia Sotomayor!

Think I'm overstating the message there? Try to imagine the same article about an equally accomplished white man's rise to success. Chances are, it would include mention of a wife and kids who had been in the background all along (while ignoring any mistresses who had as well), with no particular emphasis on the "background" part. It would praise his hard work and dedication, rather than implying that his ambition had damaged his personal life, calling his status as a well-rounded human being into question. It's highly unlikely the reporter would find anything newsworthy about his apparently stable personal finances, and anecdotes about his treating clerks to fancy dinners and offering a personal loan to friends in need would be evidence of his kindness, his humanity, not his inability to manage money. We'd learn that he's the kind of guy who will take time out of his busy, important schedule to drop by a party for a friend's daughter, as opposed to the kind of guy who's so inexplicably devoted to that schedule he only has time for a hug and a hello. Everything presented here as something odd and potentially troubling about Sotomayor would go down in the pro column if she were a man: Ambition, generosity, commitment to her profession, staying in touch as much as possible with the friends who were there all along. Sonia Sotomayor would be one hell of a guy. Too bad she's not one.

"It matters for women to be there at the conference table to be doing everything that the court does," Ginsburg told Bazelon. Referring to the controversy over Sotomayor having said she "would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life," the lone female justice on the Supreme Court -- the one currently "answering for [her] entire sex" -- says, "I'm sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the conference better." It might be a while before the public agrees on that, as long as even the "liberal media" remains so hung up on the difference between a white man who busts his butt to achieve the pinnacle of his profession and a wise Latina who does the same.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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