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The United States Supreme Court and the single gal

United States Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has an impressive list of professional credentials to her name: Princeton and Yale Graduate, lawyer, teacher, former New York Assistant District Attorney, accomplished jurist and community advocate for affordable housing and rights for Hispanic men and women.

Justice Sotomayor is also a divorcee and a childless woman in mid-life.

Now, one might think that the former list of attributes would and should be the decisive factors bearing on Justice Sotomayor’s fitness to serve as the third woman, and first Hispanic judge ever on the United States Supreme Court, and indeed, her intellectual capacity and juridical skill set have been the subjects of both meaningful debate and disparaging criticism in the press and among legal insiders since her nomination was announced.  Many will have noticed, however, that her professional abilities are not the sole focus of the Sotomayor debate; also up for grabs, and apparently of equal importance to her suitability for a position on the Supreme Court, is Justice Sotomayor’s personal life - or, more properly -- her perceived lack thereof. 

It seems that Justice Sotomayor has flummoxed and surprised media pundits everywhere with her childless, singleton status.  Along with many other single and childless women on Obama’s shortlist for the Supreme Court --  among them Solicitor General and former Harvard Dean Elena Kagan, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan and Stanford Professor Pamela Karlan -- Sotomayor’s nomination has sparked a whirlwind of status speculation on the question: why is this woman single and childless and what does it mean? 
I find it truly puzzling that anyone is in the least surprised that many single, childless women were rumoured to be among those under consideration by President Obama for a possible seat on the USSC: these women have risen to the top of the legal profession, a realm which, I can say from experience, remains both quantitatively and qualitatively dominated by men.  Is it any wonder that Sotomayor and her peers do not have children?  It is almost trite to recall that when women get married and have children, we are more likely to bear the brunt of the household and child-rearing duties.  This means that women who are wives and mothers are unlikely to be able to devote the requisite 12-20 hours per day to their legal careers, as success in the field often demands.  It makes perfect sense that women lawyers may make the decision to forgo marriage and/or children in the interest of remaining professionally competitive, unless they find a partner, male or female, to fulfill the role of “wife” as it is traditionally conceived. 

That lawyering and mothering may be mutually exclusive professions was made clear to me upon graduating from law school, at which time I was told plainly by more than one professional advisor that law firms “do not want to know” that I own a uterus, let alone that I might use it someday....apparently even having a uterus has become a professional liability in the field of law!  Is it any wonder that Obama’s potential Supreme Court nominees may have headed the sage advice of my law school advisor?  Had not done so, how likely is it that they would be on the brink of a Supreme Court appointment?  Would current conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have risen to the top of his field had he been the primary care giver, responsible for rearing his nine (9) children, instead of his wife, Maureen?                  

It is noteworthy that Sotomayor is set to replace Justice David H. Souter, an almost alarmingly uncontroversial Bush nominee and a lifelong bachelor.  At the time of his nomination, one of the few points leveled against Souter was a statement by a Utah Republican Senator who said he would have preferred that Souter “were a family man,” however he quickly backpedaled, clarifying that he “did not mean that as a criticism.”  Yet there seems to be no shortage of criticism for bachelorette Sotomayor, whom the media has branded as “aggressive” a “bully” and a “loner” who invites her law clerks over for drinks and poker.  Would the criticisms be the same if Sotomayor were married with children?

Perhaps more telling than what the deluge of status speculation does or does not say about Sotomayor is that it has exposed in the American public a lingering discomfort with women who do not occupy the most womanly of women’s roles: wife and mother.  The American public remains roped to the archaic idea that marriage and children are synonymous with stability, conformity and morality, and want to see a judge who embodies these ideals in both her professional and her personal life.  If Sotomayor’s personal life is truly as destitute as the media claims, it should, strictly speaking, act in her favour in her bid for the bench -- without a child or partner to care for at home, she can devote all of her time to caring about the law.  Yet we know the equation is not so simple.  That Sotomayor could be kept off the bench as a result of a decision not to have a family - the same decision that contributed to her professional success and led her to the threshold of a Supreme Court appointment -- is a potent reminder of the double bind faced by so many working women.  Sotomayor’s predicament is indicative of the systemic inequalities that continue to dictate the boundaries of lawyering and mothering along deeply gendered lines.

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