06 May 2009

Women & Injustice at the Supreme Court

"We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half."
- Emmeline Pankhurst

This weekend I managed to spoil an increasingly rare and initially pleasant family meal. I confronted my adult children about some facts. The result was more harmful than helpful. And my wife's emotional intelligence proved more important to our children than my facts and logic. Which brings me to the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is making an appeal to have another woman on the Supreme Court. She argues that women's understanding of gender discrimination, in particular, is different from men's. Since Bush replaced Sandra Day O'Connor with Samuel Alito, our supreme court has had only 1 woman. By contrast, 4 of the 9 Canadian Supreme Court Justices - including the Chief Justice - are women.

Oddly, claiming that there is no real difference between men and women is one way to discriminate against women.

If women think about things no differently than men, it really doesn't matter whether we include them in decision-making groups like the Supreme Court. Their views will be represented because any intelligent woman would reach the same conclusions as any intelligent man. Or so this argument would suggest.

Yet women are different - in ways that ought to influence policy and judgement. Women's brains have about 10% more neurons for language and more for emotions as well. They are better at communication and emotional understanding - both in terms of reading emotions and expressing them. Women are not shorter versions of men. They are different and it seems that pretending they are not is one of the more subtle ways of discriminating against them.

The term "court" comes from the king's court. One key to establishing the authority of early monarchies was gaining a monopoly on judgment. If there was no other authority to whom one could appeal, it was harder for people to challenge the monarch's power. Coming from that tradition, it is no mystery that the courts are very conservative, in terms of defending the status quo and the existing social system.

One reason that W. Edwards Deming opposed grades in schools is that grading the performance of student in a system makes the assumption that it is not the system that needs changing. Yet as we learn more about how people learn, we realize that different kinds of brains require different styles of learning. People love the story of Einstein's early struggle with education - being labeled slow by a teacher so steeped in the style of late 19th century education as to have missed the budding genius in his class. But far more struggling students never do bloom. I rather optimistically think that in the future, we will become more adept at educating more types of brains. For now, I think that failure to teach more children how to become fluent at a foreign language or master some particular level of math is a failure of the education system at least as much as it is a failure of those particular children.

If our society is failing to appoint more women to positions of power, it could be that women are lesser. More probably, women are different. And in ways that our systems fail to accommodate or acknowledge.

Bader Ginsburg's suggestion that we appoint more women to the Supreme Court ought to be heard. Any household where only the man's judgment is heard is one where a great many facts are overlooked - facts about human reality at least as real as any that can be demonstrated with scientific evidence.

It may be that we go through three stages of gender rights. In the first, we acknowledge differences but dismiss women as lesser. In the second, we pretend that there are no differences, a position that still rather conveniently allows us to deny them authority. In the third, we acknowledge those differences and simply demand that our social systems be changed to benefit from those differences rather than squelch them.

We're in the 21st century now. We should not have to still point out that any system that represents women as one of nine is a failed system - not a failure of women.


Anonymous said...

Great comments! I suggest getting some material by Dr. Caroline Leaf. Her DVD series includes an hour on the difference between men's and women's brains based on the latest scanning technology. She also goes through how each brain, regardless of gender, has it's own set of active regions, making us all unique!

Big Al said...

Our Supreme Court, like the upper echelons in almost all of Corporate America today, is about as diverse as the August National Golf Club that sponsors the Masters Golf Tournament: Augusta has ~300 members, none of which are women, although women are allowed to play the course. And the Golf Club didn't admit their first black person until 1990.

Our United States claims to be so progressive, yet the truth is we're just one big "Old Boys Club".

We need a few more Supreme Court justices to retire so we can make the court truly represent the melting pot of the U.S., including insuring we have at least 4 women on the Court.

Anonymous said...

You are truly a large man! Thanks for your confidence and support on the female perspective. I would also like to know the percentage of females in the lesser court systems as well. When I testified in court last week, it seemed to be all about blame and punishment. My perspective and I think a female perspective in general, would want to focus more on a solution that makes the problem better instead of worse. Has blame and punishment ever made anyone a better person? Love you,

nunya said...


Anonymous said...

I think Judge Judy is better than all the male judge programs!

Benny said...

I know I'd feel a lot more confident in the decisions the Supreme Court handed down if there were at least a couple more female voices included. In general, I find women to be at least 10 times smarter than men.

Anonymous said...

i think that the problem is in generalizations. people worry that saying most women tend to be more (fill in blank) reduces people. however, it is safe to say that women have a different perspective than men because they live in society differently.