Sotomayor, Sexism and Senate Elections

By Terry Jacques

There are some forms of sexism that produce a universal reaction in women at a level so deep, no analysis is required. We see it, we feel it, and it hurts. Our stomachs clench involuntarily, and a burning ball of anger wells up within us. Some of us can brush off jokes or excuse a poorly worded phrase, but a paternalistic attitude assaults our very essence as women.

This is part of the daily-ness of sexism, experienced by all women, whether perpetrated by a boss or co-worker, a family member or someone we barely know. It could be the loan officer, the repairman or the salesman, but we all have suffered assaults on our competence from multiple directions, over and over again. And so whenever condescension rears its ugly head, we each react as if we were its direct target. When we see one woman talked down to, we know that all women are being demeaned.

This reaction crosses the boundaries of political ideology, generation, class and race. One need not ascribe to, or even like, feminism. No explanation about well-meaning intent and no set of talking points can change our reaction. It is what it is.

The Sonia Sotomayor hearings presented not one, but an ongoing string of incidents over several days. The image was tremendously powerful—a panel of predominantly middle-aged white men talking down to a woman whose education, relevant experience and accomplishments far outweighed their own. And it was clear that this attitude was embraced solely by the Republican members of the committee.

Time and time again, they led with an acknowledgment of Sotomayor’s impressive record, only to transition to the “but” that would introduce their true line of questioning and render their praise disingenuous. What they essentially said was, “You have a long, distinguished record as a judge, but we don’t care about that. Instead of asking about your actual judicial decisions, we’re going to focus on what you said out of court, whom you have associated with and what anonymous sources tell us about your character.”

 The message to women was unmistakable:

– Are you, as a woman and a nonwhite, capable of rendering nonbiased decisions like those of us who are white men?

– Do you have a “temperament problem”? Even though we’ve heard the same about a certain male justice, we can’t tolerate assertiveness from a woman. Perhaps you are, like many women, controlled by your emotions, or worse yet, the stereotypic “bitch.”

– How dare you think that ”a wise Latina woman” could ever render a better judgment than a white man! We are deeply concerned that you might have the audacity to think you are better than us.

– We’re going to lecture you over and over again about your poor choice of words so that we can be sure that you have grasped our meaning. Perhaps we should speak more slowly and use shorter words.

– Do you have anything to say for yourself, young lady? I think you should apologize. – I want you to take some time to reflect upon your behavior. You go on “time out,” and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.

Few women could watch so much as a portion of the hearings and not cringe at the dripping praise and overblown, often infantilizing, criticism rendered by Republican committee members. Even women hoping for Sotomayor’s demise as a judicial nominee would take issue with her treatment as a woman.

If the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the DNC are smart, they’ll start looking for and preparing women and/or Latino candidates now to run against these Republicans. Although Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is the only one running in 2010, footage of the hearings will keep, given that the issue is attitudinal and not related to policy. Since the behavior of these committee members is reflected in the talking points of the party as a whole, the same footage could be used against the Republican leadership and any senator that has been seen on television parroting these sentiments.

Arlen Specter almost lost his seat during the height of his bi-partisan popularity because the women of Pennsylvania were incensed by his aggressive treatment of Anita Hill and his cavalier attitude toward sexual harassment. Hillary Clinton was able to carry her presidential candidacy well beyond the point when she lost, mainly because women across the country bristled at the thought of a younger man ascending to power in the place of a more experienced woman. The McCain campaign recognized the power of sexism as a motivator to conservative women, although they also demonstrated a superficial level of understanding, by nominating a token woman for the vice-presidency.

The Sotomayor hearings remind us how important it is to have more women in positions of leadership, while at the same time illustrating a disturbing attitude among conservative Republicans—that it is acceptable opposition strategy to openly put women in their place. If given a viable choice, many women will vote accordingly. Democratic leaders hoping to solidify their majority in the Senate would do well to remember this.


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