By Nichola D. Gutgold
In 1790 the United States Supreme Court convened for the first time. It isn’t surprising that all its members were men, since almost one hundred years later Myra Bradwell, who passed the Illinois bar exam in 1869 and applied for her license to practice law was rejected because she was not only a woman, but a wife, too. Furthermore, in 1873, the Court rejected her appeal and Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley noted that as a married woman, she was not competent to make contracts or do other legal work for her clients because of her legal, social and natural defined dependence on her husband in all matters. It was not until the 1970s that the Supreme Court began to use the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to challenge state laws that discriminated against women in the workplace and employment in general. Backed by the Equal Pay Act passed by Congress in 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court held up in 1971 that employers could not discriminate in hiring against women who had young children.
With these relatively new cases aimed at gender equality, it isn’t too surprising that representation on the Supreme Court by women has been so sparse. Since 1790, only two women have served on the Supreme Court. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed and in 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined her. The third potential justice, Sonia Sotomayor is facing intense scrutiny surrounding the rhetoric of race as she awaits her confirmation.
It should also be of little surprise that Sonia Sotomayor is being ridiculously accused of racism. No doubt in this 24/7 YouTube driven media culture, she is learning that is takes a special communication skill set to manage the tricky terrain of politics, government and the law. The now infamous statement that has been taken out of context and played in a Moebius loop was: "I 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." Though we have heard this often repeated quote again and again in the media, less stressed is Sonia Sotomayor’s impressive record as a federal jurist, as a litigator and as a prosecutor. That she is a two-time Ivy League graduate and did not enter those institutions with a family legacy relates to the majority of Americans who have only their own hard work to propel them forward.
Sonia Sotomayor will likely win confirmation as the third female Supreme Court Justice because she is well qualified and, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that President Obama quoted when he nominated her, “The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience.” It is vitally important that a justice know “how the world works, and how ordinary people live.” As women continue to enter the legal profession, equal representation of men and women on the Supreme Court is crucial. Though both Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg downplayed their gender and said that “At the end of the day, a wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same judgment,” it is indeed, long awaited progress that Sonia Sotomayor will bring her wise Latina woman’s voice to the Supreme Court in order to more accurately reflect the experiences of an ever increasingly diverse America.
Nichola D. Gutgold is co-author of Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart and author of the following books with Lexington Books: Paving the Way for Madam President (2006), Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News (2008), and the forthcoming Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘Won’ in 2008 (July 2009). She specializes in examining the communication skills of women in male dominated fields.