I considered devoting the column this week to the sexism that goes along with Valentine's Day, as it it is a clear example of some of the larger patriarchal themes in our society, such as the idea that women's bodies are easily purchased by trinkets, the idea that women are turned on by material things while men are turned on by the promise of sex as gratitude for those material things, or how Valentine's Day is a corporate holiday celebrating consumerism masquerading as true love in order to guilt one into parting with their hard earned dollars for frivolous items because love can only be measured in dollars and cents.
However, after watching too many "Buy her diamonds or you have failed as a man/You better nag your man to get you diamonds because the amount of sparkly and pink things you receive on February 14th is directly tied to your value as a woman" commercials, I just don't have the stomach for it. So let's just leave it at that - Valentine's Day kind of sucks.
What I'd like to focus on is some of the conversations regarding the recent news of Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Although her diagnosis sounds promising and it doesn't appear she'll be leaving the bench any time soon, it does make the issue of the inevitability of her being replaced at some point in the near future quite salient.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been the only woman on the Supreme Court bench since Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired back in 2005. O'Connor was the first woman to join the court back in 1981, and was alone herself on the bench until Ginsberg's nomination in 1993, over ten years later. As the Supreme Court has such a low representation of women on it's bench, the question that instantly comes to mind is regarding Obama's possible replacement of Justice Ginsberg - Will President Obama appoint a woman to replace Ginsberg? What about if other Justices resign during President Obama's term, or for that matter, future Presidential terms? Will we start to shape the court to be representative of the actual population of the country*, meaning that five court justices would be female and four male?
Probably not. The cries and accusations of "identity politics" would be almost deafening if anyone dared appoint two or more females in succession for the Supreme Court. Reverse sexism would be claimed, feminists like myself would be accused of hypocrisy for daring to suggest that gender may matter in Supreme Court appointments. But are these accusations accurate? Can we argue for more female representation in the areas of law and politics without betraying our notions that the genders should be treated equally? I think we can, and that we actually should.
The curse of "Identity Politics" is the most recent tool used for discrediting movements based on race or gender in our country. Creating political identities arising from race and gender is detrimental to the quest for equality, critics will say, while others will point out the unfairness of the use of them by some groups being acceptable while the usage by other groups is frowned upon. Some may agree that there are valid issues here, but it would be reverse discrimination to act on them, which apparently means that if women in congress or on the courts come to represent the actual population of the country, something unfair is going on.
All of these arguments contain flaws. Identity politics are nothing new, nor are they limited to specific genders or races. All we have to do is look at some of former President Bush's antics for photo opportunities, such as striding across an aircraft carrier in a codpiece during his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech back in 2003, or charming photos of Mike Huckabee donning hunting gear and challenging Mitt Romney on his hunting credentials, or the continued bashing of feminists and rants about the downfall of masculinity in punditry and the media. Often things like hunting photo opportunities are not seen as playing to a certain group in society, because it is playing off of masculinity and in a patriarchal society, masculinity is seen as the norm while femininity is seen as other. Are their women that hunt and clear brush? No doubt. But odds are, you will never see Hillary Clinton wearing a codpiece, because the reality is not important here, the image is. So perhaps we can put aside the notion that identity politics are something that only some groups use for political benefit, because from appealing to men invested in traditional gender roles by reinforcing them to appealing to racist whites with dog whistles about race, it's obvious that this is a case of "okay for me, not for thee".
It's become increasing apparent that there are political identities assumed based on things like gender in this country - the personal is indeed political. While some will take that as hypocrisy on behalf of those that fight for equality, as if it is a suggestion of actual differences in gender resulting in difference in how gender is treated under the law, while in reality the reason why these identities are formed is based on the reaction to a specific gender from society instead. If we were to take a woman and a man that were identical in everything, the experience for both for these people would more then likely still differ because of how the two genders are perceived and treated by society. Those that are treated differently, and those that perceive certain groups to be treated differently based on gender roles and stereotypes in society, are going to respond differently to political issues then those that do not experience or perceive this.
The Supreme Court yields some examples of this, most notably the 2007 ruling on the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003. In what is probably the most sexism-based court ruling of my lifetime, Justice Kennedy justified the ban in the majority opinion of the court by not only denying that health reasons such as risk of maternal death are inconsequential, but also by playing on some strong gender stereotypes in regards to the "indecisive" or "fickle" woman, who apparently aborts and eight-month old pregnancy on a whim.
Perhaps Justice Kennedy would like to meet some of the women whose actual life experiences contradict his claim that late-term abortions are never necessary to save the life of the mother. Justice Ginsberg wrote a strong dissent to this decision, not only calling out the sexism inherent in the idea that women need to be protected form these decisions because they aren't rational enough to make them, but also taking it a step further and laying out the foundation for the argument that pro-choice supporters have been hammering away at for a while now - that the abortion issue is not about morals, or privacy, or protecting women from themselves, it is about the simple fact that under the law, women are considered equal citizens in this society. This aspect is often overlooked by anti-choice proponents, who often argue the debate as if women and their rights were non-existent. Obviously, it makes it much easier to argue on behalf of the rights of the fetus once we negate the rights of the mother that is carrying that fetus. That this sort of argument is even possible is a testament to the problem of inaccurate representation of women on the court, as few women would argue that they are somehow invisible or irrelevant in a debate that very obviously involves them, and if it does, frames them as weak-minded children that need government to protect them from themselves.
Would this ruling have been different if women were accurately represented in the court? It's very possible. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, appointed as a right-leaning moderate, had a pattern of siding with the more left-leaning justices when it came to issues that affected women, even though she often sided with the right side on other issues. Indeed, seven years earlier, O'Connor had been the swing vote on the very same issue.
We seen this pattern in congress as well, most recently during the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act which overturned an unreasonable standard of limitation on women seeking compensation for pay discrimination in the workplace. It really is no surprise that the four Republican women in the Senate , who have experience with being women in unequal workplaces, broke ranks with their party and voted for it's passage.
So the next question is, what do we do about this? An attempt to get more women in areas of law and politics usually results in a cry of bias, an accusation that the apparently always more-qualified men are being passed over for the sake of some PC notion of equality. That the argument is in of itself a bit sexist, as it assumes that women are never more qualified and therefore men are always being treated unfairly because of this. Some may argue that there just is not enough women in these areas to fill these positions, but this argument has apparently never been updated to reflect educational statistics that show that over half of all college graduates are women. One almost starts to get the impression that it is seen as unfair if women are used as anything other then tokens to show gender diversity. However, observations into the fear that some have in actually having a workforce that is representative of the population is probably a topic for some other time.
Even things that don't appear to be related to gender have an effect, unless we really believe that having only men participating in the stimulus conferences has no bearing on programs that are meant to benefit women being cut. And this is nothing new, women's issues have often been set on the back burners of congress due to a lack of strong representation for them. And this is not only bad for women, but it's bad for everybody, as women's issues outside of stereotypes are usually are not just women's issues, but overlap with issues like poverty, education, and childcare.
So perhaps it's time for us to start challenging some of these arguments that have been relied upon for so many years to keep women as a rarity in these influential spheres. And recognize that a truly representative government would represent the makeup of the actual population, rather then only containing those that represent a smaller portion of the country.
* For simplicity here, I've decided to focus on gender. But it goes without saying that gender is not the only factor here, issues such as race and class play a large part in accurate representation as well and also need to be addressed.