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Sonia Sotomayor, Gender, and Knowledge in Politics

July 9, 2009

As a closet lawyer, I admit to following the news about the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. As someone who studies gender and leadership in global politics, I’ve been interested in what I’ve found. Putting aside for a second the crazy “news” stories, which report that “Sotomayor has been unmarried since 1983 and lives in Greenwich Villiage, New York, a haven for Gays and radical leftists” (, “a racist, feminazi who judges cases based on feeling,” (, and declare “open season on the ‘bitch’” (, there is an interesting debate to be seen about what it means to know and to decide, not only in law, but in politics, and in life.

Much has been made over a couple of statements that Sonia Sotomayor has made about how people, particularly judges, know things. CNN reports that “Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said in a 2001 speech that a judge’s gender and ethnicity does, and should, influence his or her decision-making on the bench.” Particularly, several news sources have quoted judge Sotomayor as having said that she “accept[s] that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that – its an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.” Sotomayor’s critics say that this is an admission of bias, and, as identified by my local Roanoke Times focused on her “gender and ethnicity as near prima facie proof of her unfitness to serve.” On the other hand, her democratic supporters, according to Jill Filipovic on Alternet, “predictably trip over themselves arguing that Sotomayor’s race and gender do not matter.”

I often feel like the left has missed a real and important debate, and I think the controversy over Sotomayor’s statements about race and gender is a prime example. What of the argument that not only gender and ethnicity, but positionality more generally, influence the way people, politicians, and judges think, and that is a good thing?

Feminist scholars (generally and in international relations) have long argued that “disinterested” or “objective” knowledge is neither possible nor desirable; instead, that objective knowledge is only the subjective knowledge of privileged voices discussed as neutral. I have argued (in Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq) that this unrepresentativeness hides behind culturally assumed objectivity, where the privileged are licensed to think “for everyone” so long as they do so with presumed objectivity. Instead, feminist scholars understand that knowledge is always contingent, interested, and political.

There are those who, in recent weeks, have made the argument that “no white men need apply” for Obama Supreme Court nominations. I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but it is a funny statement to me, considering the Supreme Court is both overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male; certainly, not representative of the race, class, ethnicity, and gender diversity of the United States population. When people wonder whether Sonia Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity will “matter” in her decision-making, I guess I hope that it will. Reading the controversy about Sotomayor’s statements about race and gender, I cannot help but think of Sandra Harding’s (in Is Science Multicultural?) idea of a “strong objectivity” made up of many diverse voices and perspectives, and hope that the (not only the) Supreme Court (but maybe the United States government, governments around the world, and the scholars who study those governments and their interactions) might someday aspire to that sort of “objectivity,” instead of eschewing it because we are afraid to talk about perspective and difference.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.