Monday, October 03, 2005

On Nominating Women

If Harriet Miers becomes a Supreme Court Judge she will be the third female on the bench ever. Women are the majority of Americans but almost as rare as hen's teeth in positions of great societal power. To many on the right this is quite acceptable, and any attempt to change it amounts to affirmative action, interpreted as appointing someone incompetent just because the person is not a white Christian male. White Christian males are assumed to be competent because they are the default option: almost all past Supreme Court justices were white and Christian and male, so these characteristics are fine. On the other hand, someone who is not white, Christian or male is automatically under suspicion as a "diversity hire". That this person might be competent must be proven, and proven separately for each case.

Virginia Valian's Why So Slow discusses the reasons for this. One type of study gives research subjects imaginary resumes of job applicants and asks the subjects to rank them in terms of competence. Some resumes are randomly assigned male names and some female names, and this is done so that on average the applicants of either sex have equally good resumes. What these studies show is interesting: When the proportion of women in the applicant pool is large enough (say, thirty percent), the sex of the applicant has no effect on the ranking, but when women are a small percentage of the total the research subjects appear to focus on their gender and this has a negative effect on the ratings the women receive. Remember that there is no actual difference between the imaginary male and female applicants in these studies. Thus the effect is solely one based on one sex being "unusual".

Now apply this to the nomination of women to the Supreme Court, and it's possible to see why the sex of the applicant would be important even if the wingnuts didn't make it so by their affirmative action argument: women are "unusual" candidates and their gender therefore becomes noticeable. Feminists have known about this for a long time, and the solution to the problem has been to find extraordinary women for the first "unusual" appointments, women so good that they can't be rejected even if their sex is "wrong". The same strategy was applied in the early integration of professional baseball. The black players selected to be the first in the previously all-white teams were hand-picked not only for their skill and talent in the game but also for their other characteristics.

This strategy doesn't work when the people doing the selecting are not really interested in, say, integrating the Supreme Court but on something else, which is a long and arid way of saying that George Bush nominates people for his own reasons, not for the reasons that I would like him to have. He doesn't necessarily carefully pick the most brilliant legal scholars who just happen to be female, for example. But his choices still have an impact on women in law and on women in general.

The rare woman in some traditionally male position of power is judged not just as an individual but as a woman, and many of us with two x-chromosomes hold our breaths watching her walk that tightrope. Because if she falls we all fall with her, and this makes us sometimes even harsher critics of a failing woman than those who really don't think much of women on the whole. We know about the results from the studies Valian reports and we know that a man can fail and not bring down the future opportunities of other men, but this is not true for women as long as we are seen as part of the homogeneous mass of "womanhood" and not as individuals. And we are not seen as individuals when the token women are few and novel.

Much has changed since the early years of the second wave of feminism, and in many areas women are now common enough to be seen as individuals. But this is not true of the top posts in the society, such as the seats in the Supreme Court. There the old problem still remains, the one Bella Abzug meant when she pointed out that it's not enough for us to pave the roads to the top for the exceptional and brilliant women. We need to pave the roads for the average woman so that she will not be treated any worse than a man who is as average as she. We are not there yet, and the Miers nomination gives you all the evidence you might need on that.