Imagine you’re suffering through puberty. You’re called into a school administrator’s office and asked to strip down to your underwear. The women ask you to pull open your bra and panties to search for drugs. They find nothing.
So you sue the school and it heads to the Supreme Court. In this true story, the politics of gender reared its head recently as the sole woman on the Supreme Court offered an opinion from a distinctly female perspective.
During oral arguments, Justice Stephen Breyer said he didn’t understand why a school administrator telling a girl to strip would have traumatic effect. Reporters said that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s eyes flashed with anger at his question. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she told USA Today. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."
Despite making up more than half of the nation’s population, only one woman currently sits on the court. As a result, President Barack Obama will likely face immense pressure to consider a female replacement for Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
A female justice would offer a unique perspective to the Supreme Court. Women face different life challenges than men both biologically and psychologically. For example, only women experience pregnancy, which is often taken into consideration when ruling on abortion. Women are also more likely to face gender discrimination in education or employment. Recent research suggests that male and female judges vote nearly identically on most cases, except in those involving sex discrimination. Female judges are more likely to rule in favor of the person alleging discrimination, and male judges are more likely to rule in favor of the person claiming sex discrimination if they sit with a female judge.
Strong female voices are also needed in the legislative branch. They are more likely to face personal experience with issues such as sexual harassment and equal employment benefits. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner recently told The New York Times that while in the Arizona Legislature, she examined each statute to examine whether it discriminated against women and worked to fix these errors.
As female candidates are proposed for the vacant seat, Slate’s potential nominees resemble Susan Boyle more than Miss California, perhaps because the nominees will be evaluated based on their resume and not their hair color. Regrettably, that is not the case for most political campaigns, as candidates – male or female – face scrutiny from voters for the money they spend on a haircut to the eschatological views their pastor holds. Unlike justices, female politicians must persuade their constituents to elect them when voters might be more likely to vote for a male candidate, a seduction perhaps better suited to Miss California.
In the time between Hillary Clinton leaving the presidential race and Sarah Palin coming on board as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the Pew Research Center published a compelling study on gender and leadership. Only 6 percent of respondents said that women make better political leaders while 21 percent said that men make better leaders. On particular policy areas, Pew’s research shows that female candidates are judged to be better than men at dealing with issues such as healthcare and education. However, if an election revolves around perceived masculine issues, such as defense and national security, male candidates are likely to have an advantage.
This disparity is consistent with the gender roles many Americans grow up observing. The most prominent women in Americans’ lives tend to be mothers, nurses, or teachers – figures who generally fulfill comforting roles. In contrast, men are often seen in protector or enforcement professions, such as policemen, judges, or sports coaches. Despite our efforts to become gender neutral, it is difficult to imagine Martha Stewart leading the United States into war. Palin and Clinton made significant strides during the last election, but women have the unique struggle of bringing their feminine identity to the table while proving they can "wear the pants" as well as any male politician. Although Clinton does improve this stereotype in her new role as Secretary of State, some may argue she fulfills her duties by distancing herself from her own femininity.
Two female politicians – Senators Barbara Boxer (D) and Olympia Snowe (R) – recently urged Obama to choose a woman for the next Supreme Court justice. “Women make up more than half of our population, but right now hold only one seat out of nine on the United States Supreme Court,” they wrote in a letter. “This is out of balance. In order for the court to be relevant, it needs to be diverse and better reflect America.” Perhaps they see the Supreme Court as an opportunity to show what women can accomplish in important positions, paving the way for more female politicians to be voted in by the public.
It's unfortunate that women, who offer unique and valuable perspectives in politics, often face steeper challenges to step into those roles. Thankfully, Supreme Court justices will be judged based on their merit and not their wardrobe. Now if only the same qualifications were extended to women in the executive and legislative branches as well.