In his popular novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers creates a woman who devotes her life to the study of trees. Her diligence rewards her. She makes an astounding discovery. Trees communicate with each other through the air. Though her research is scrupulous, her male colleagues laugh, cast doubts upon the data and even refuse to pay her the courtesy of referring to her as “doctor.” In their critiques, they speak of her as “Patricia.”
Trivializing a woman’s thoughts isn’t new. Over the course of the world’s misogynistic history, women are rarely credited with being worth more than half a man. We observe this bias most elegantly in Brett Kavanaugh’s endorsements for the Supreme Court when compared to those for Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Andrea Hill Sanchez, a Yale Law School graduate like Mayor and Kavanaugh, refreshes our memory. She reminds us that words associated with Kavanaugh are “intellectual,” “thoughtful” “clear,” and “learned.” Candidate Sotomayor’ supporters saw her as “a warm, wonderful human being,” a jurist “who combines heart and head.”
I see nothing wrong with a judge being a wonderful human being, but as Sanchez points out, the quality is more akin to being a nurse or an elementary school teacher. Remarking on softer attributes can be code for “not an intellect” or, more importantly, “not quite one of us.”
Language matters. If a woman imagines she has gained equality with her male counterparts, let her stand aside and listen to the comments of her peers. She may discover an unspoken prejudice lies beneath the compliment.