Posted: July 15, 2009 04:08 PM
It’s day three for Sonia Sotomayor on the Capitol, and like many of us, I am dismayed by the politics and punditry surrounding the confirmation proceedings. Yet what troubles me most about the negative and sexist remarks is this: our children are watching.
Years ago, Dr. Carol Gilligan, whose work on the loss of voice and confidence in young girls reaching adolescence made her an expert in the field, worked with my team at the Ms. Foundation on a public education campaign to make adults think about how their environment affected girls.
We strongly considered fashioning stickers that could be placed on billboards, magazines, advertisements, and products which begged the question: “A girl is watching. What is she learning about being a woman?” We felt those simple stickers would force women and men alike to view their surroundings in a completely different light, and reexamine the subtle and overt messages which girls interact with on a daily basis. Eventually, we came up with the hugely successful Take Our Daughters to Work Day campaign, but I always regretted that we didn’t produce the stickers as well.
As I watch the news coverage of Sotomayor, I wish I could plaster those stickers over TV screens and pundit mouths across the nation. Because truly, what are we teaching our girls — particularly girls of color — about being a woman who strives to lead? And how are we teaching our boys to treat them when they grow into men?
The knowledge we are imparting to girls is this: you may work really hard and make it to the top of your class. You may get distinguished degrees from Princeton and Yale, have a successful career, and even be hand-picked by the President of the United States for the highest court in the land. Yet people on TV will call you “domineering” because you’re an outspoken woman. They will bring up your menstruation and call it “really bad” for the decisions you make. If you’re a woman of color, they may even joke about sending you vacuum cleaners to clean up after meetings. At the very least, you will be asked to cut off the parts of yourself that reflect your race or gender in exchange for a seat at the tables of power.
In his opening remarks on Monday, Sen. Charles Schumer reminded us that Sotomayor’s compelling life story will inspire a new generation of women. As White House Project research has shown, role models are critical in allowing young women — particularly women of color — to envision themselves in the political realm.
Yet these proceedings may also serve to discourage a generation of women from following in Sotomayor’s trailblazing footsteps precisely because of the treatment they are witnessing – and repeat the cycle by allowing boys to believe this treatment is acceptable and deserved. I implore our congressional leaders and our talking heads to take this weighty concept into account the next time they judge Sotomayor on anything but her record and merits — and to remember, our children are watching.