Carol Platt Liebau: <i>This</i> Is Feminism?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

This Is Feminism?

In today's Slate, Dahlia Lithwick discusses recent comments by the former and current female Supreme Court Justices (O'Connor and Ginsburg, respectively):

First we heard sitting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently telling USA Today's Joan Biskupic that she's "lonely" on the court without Sandra Day O'Connor. Then this week, former Justice O'Connor told Newsweek that she chose to retire rather than resign because had she lost her office at the High Court and her judicial duties, "maybe then she would be a nobody. 'I'd be on my own,'." as she put it.

From this, Lithwick concludes, the female justices are "speak[ing] out so forcefully on what it means to be a woman at the high court." Say what?

It sounds to me like so much less. No doubt everyone is very sad that Justice Ginsburg feels lonesome as the only woman on the Court; no doubt that there are people who could empathize with her in the Secretary of State's office and many of the corporate boardrooms of America. But given that much of her life has been spent focused on gender issues (which often emphasize the conflicts and differences between the sexes) and feminism (which attributes to every woman "pioneer" the responsibility for representing her entire gender), perhaps it's not surprising that she would feel a disproportionate sense of self-conciousness as the sole woman on the Court. That, in itself, may make her position more difficult for her, but it doesn't render it particularly pitiable in the grand scheme of things.

As for Justice O'Connor, one does sincerely sympathize with her decision to resign in order to care for her ailing husband. But again, the problems of being a "nobody" and being "on [her] own" once a prestigious job is relinquished are certainly not specific to women -- if anything, it's manifested more frequently among men. And, it must be conceded, at least she has many of the resources that make retirement and the duties associated with responsibility for a sick spouse significantly less crushing.

Lithwick tries to pose both Justices' comments as some sort of indicia of feminism. To me, they're nothing of the sort -- in fact, they're nothing but the kind of victim-speak that is particularly jarring coming from two of the country's most powerful women. The experiences to which the Justices refer have nothing to do with feminism -- they're not even specific to females. And it's only news because it's unusual for any Justice (female or not) to share these kinds of personal and emotional revelations -- the kind of private disclosures that, too often, provide fodder for women to be stereotyped as "hyper emotional."

Does anyone hear Justice Thomas pining in the newspapers for another black counterpart on the Court? Did Chief Justice William Rehnquist ever publicly share the struggle of serving as the Court's chief officer as he died of thyroid cancer? Of course not. That's the point.

Who would want any part of this kind of feminism?


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