Judge Sotomayor's Meltdown and Kay Corleone's Hysteria: The Persistence of Gender Stereotypes
Judge Sotomayor’s “Meltdown” and Kay Corleone’s “Hysteria”
The Persistence of Oppressive Gender Stereotypes
“Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed.”
Senator Lindsey Graham to Judge Sonia Sotomayor at her confirmation hearings, July 13, 2009.
Here we go again. It’s the old gender stereotype of overemotional women and rational men. It is hard to imagine a senator making the same statement to a nominee for the Supreme Court who is male. What would prompt Senator Graham from even thinking that a “meltdown” was even a fathomable possibility, let alone say it? It was little consolation that he followed up with, “And I do not think you will.” Senator Graham’s statement perpetuates outdated notions of femininity (and by implication, masculinity) that should be obsolete by now.
As Americans, we often congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made toward equal rights for women. And in truth, we can point to a steady stream of advances from granting women the right to own property, to divorce, to vote, to use birth control. Women are now represented (arguably, inadequately) across all professions. So it is especially shocking and disconcerting that a United States Senator would think it appropriate to make such a comment to Judge Sotomayor, who through dedication and superior intellect and commitment to public service has risen to the pinnacle of her field.
An overwhelming portion of the questioning of Judge Sotomayor during hearings focused on her ability to judge cases before her with objectivity. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern that her experiences and self-identification as a Puerto Rican woman would impact her judgment. In the same vein, Senator Graham asked her if she has “a temperament problem.” The flip-side of his question is an inquiry as to whether she can be more of a man in performing her job. It seems that in spite of the strides we have made in this country to recognize women as full citizens, as fully formed individuals, comments such as Senator Graham’s which indict women as irrational, or less than a man, still surface periodically.
There is a chauvinistic double standard at work. The issue of whether a judge’s experience adds value to his or her ability to judge or detract from his/her impartiality came up during the confirmation hearings for Justice Samuel Alito. In that case, his working class Italian heritage elicited admiration from the Committee. For Judge Sotomayor, in contrast, her life experience was employed to discredit her ability to render decisions objectively and raised issues of her “fiery” temperament.
Listening to the questioning, I was reminded of the dialogue at the end of the “The Godfather” when Michael Corleone says of his wife Kay, “Take her upstairs. She’s hysterical.” In response to Kay’s moral outrage over his order to kill his sister’s husband, Michael brands Kay “hysterical” and therefore without the capacity for reason. He asks for her to be handled, because she, in his view, cannot handle herself. It’s worth taking a quick look at the origin of the term. Hysteria was once a commonly diagnosed, catchall condition for women (exclusively) who appeared nervous, oppositional, irritable or who behaved in other ways that defied commonsensical notions of civility. It was an easy and socially accepted way to pathologize and thereby denigrate women’s passions and mental capacities. Kay Corleone is too emotional to handle the business of men, and similarly we are asked to consider whether Judge Sotomayor has the temperament to handle a seat on the Supreme Court, a position held up to now by only 2 women out of 110 Supreme Court Justices.
The treatment of Judge Sotomayor at her confirmation hearings indicates that binary notions of gender construction still hold sway. Over the course of the last century, we have seen the use of hysteria as a medical diagnosis phased out completely. However, its colloquial usage persists as a means to belittle women and call their judgment and intellect into question. Senator Graham’s remarks are a vestigial remnant of that oppressive construction of female gender. As we anticipate the full vote of the Senate on Judge Sotomayor’s nomination, we can hope that her confirmation will take us one step further away from the outdated perception of women as emotional creatures to be handled and men as rational beings. It is a constraint that both men and women would be happy to do without.
 For a powerful literary account of one woman’s struggle with the diagnosis and treatment of Hysteria, I recommend The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Tags: Sotomayor Gender Politics
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