This snapshot reflects one of the patterns embedded in how we think about power and gender. We recognize the problems these patterns create when we see a highly charged confirmation hearing that includes accusations of sexual harassment. We might miss the quieter and more subtle appearances.
With the recent nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson in mind, I revisited Julie Cohen's review of First: An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice. She points to the attributes the author, Evan Thomas, uses to explain Justice O'Connor's success—a "knack for brushing past insults," a "relentlessness belied by a pretty smile," and an "almost superhuman level of energy."
In the book, Thomas also shares insight into how the public perceived O'Connor's work:
Several people said to me that the irony here is that this somewhat traditional woman was more effective in the cause of women's rights precisely because she was not threatening and because she was practical and she knew when to step back. But she also knew when to step forward.
This picture of the first woman to serve on the court sounds lovely, but it also sounds very different from how we remember the strongest voices of the court. Have you ever heard praise for stepping back or managing their perception as a threat in the biographies of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801-1835), Justice Louis Brandeis (1916-1939), or Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953-1969)?
Perhaps this sort of pragmatism is women's work.
When her confirmation hearings start next week, Justice Ketanji Jackson Brown will have to navigate these traditional expectations with one additional detail. If confirmed, Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve on the country's highest court. Unfortunately, skepticism about her credentials and worthiness became part of the public debate before anyone knew the name of any specific nominee.
Race and gender were already perceived to threaten our more traditional expectations.
In Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard reflects on how we celebrate the increasing number of women serving in parliaments around the world. She suggests that we're "not quite straight about what we want women in parliament for." Reports on the topic often point to the fact that women in office promote legislation more aligned to "women's issues." Obviously, that includes childcare, equal pay, and domestic violence. 🙄
This explanation for representation and why it matters reflects everything that's missing from how we think about power and gender. The substance of it uses limited ideas about women, power, and what we expect of a just society. These are the kind of shortcomings that deserve our skepticism.
On this point, Beard says the reason to want women to hold public office is much more basic:
"It is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women's expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care.
We can admire women serving in public office without ever changing our ideas about the work they do.
"You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb ('to power'), not as a possession."
What would our questions for Supreme Court nominees sound like if we were thinking about power like this?
In a recent episode of the Amicus podcast, host Dahlia Lithwick talked to Professor Anita Hill about Jackson's nomination and the upcoming hearings. Hill's suggestion for improving the process focused on answering two questions for the American public—Why is nomination important to the people of this country, and why is the court important to the people of this country?
That's an approach to the process that enlarges our view of our highest court. It might even uplift our ideas about the people who do our work there.
"The right to be seen, the right to be heard, the right to direct the course of history are markers of power."
—Stacey Abrams, Voting rights activist and candidate for office
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For Your Reading List
When Putin first invaded Ukraine, many observers turned to a typical lens for understanding International Relations—game theory. Then everyone wanted to discuss whether or not this framework applied since nothing Putin did looked rational. The most interesting take I heard came from Fiona Hill... Putin is rational but not in anyway that makes sense to us today.
It turns out that many well-known and trusted journalists have some expertise on events in the region and they have turned my attention to a much more useful question:
What is Vladimir Putin thinking?
He wants to stop NATO and the "strategic blunder" of its eastward expansion.David Remnick from The New Yorker discusses Russia's ambitions with historian Steve Kotkin who offers this response:
"What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise, it's not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed in the 19th century, Russia looked like this. "
They make a thorough inquiry of how Russia has been a "relatively weak, great power" throughout its history and how the power of the oligarchs plays out today.
His mental model is imperial or anti-modern. In a Q&A with Politico, Fiona Hill relays warnings about nuclear weapons and Putin's imperial ambitions:
"It's reestablishing Russian dominance of what Russia sees as the Russian "Imperium." I'm saying this very specifically because the lands of the Soviet Union didn't cover all of the territories that were once part of the Russian Empire. So that should give us pause."
Her conversation with Ezra Klein for his podcast offers a sort of "extended cut" on the same themes, "Fiona Hill on the War Putin is Really Fighting.". Klein also had an excellent conversation with journalist Masha Gessen on this question.
We are witnessing an identity crisis. Everything Timothy Snyder knows about tyranny, he learned by studying Ukrainian politics and history. In January, Snyder wrote, "How to think about war in Ukraine," and offered this insight:
"What is most striking about Putin's essay is the underlying uncertainty about Russian identity. When you claim that your neighbors are your brothers you are having an identity crisis."
His conversations on Ukraine often revolve around our ideas about what makes a nation:
"Nationality is about the way that people in the present think about the what is to come. If Ukrainians regard themselves as a national community with a future together in a state, then the issue is settled. Historically speaking, the idea that a dictator in another country decides who is a nation and who is not is known as imperialism. "
More recently, Snyder posted a short essay on the history of Ukraine hoping it will help us all see the bad faith at work and understand the politics.
He also talked to Noel King with Vox's "Today Explained" at the end of February, "The real and imagined history of Ukraine," and, of course, Ezra Klein this week, "Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin's Plans."
Since it feels like we're now following everything Timothy Snyder does, this is his list of "A few ways to help in Ukraine."
For Believing in Democracy
Art has the power to "nudge change in the right direction." Artist Favianna Rodriguez shared this reflection during one of the first episodes of Ben & Jerry's new podcast, "Into the Mix." This endeavor sounds like one of their best combinations so far—joy and justice. Hosted by best-selling author Ashley C. Ford, the conversations focus on art, activism, and social change. (Four episodes available here)
They also talk about ice cream. Rodriguez designed the "Pecan Resist" pint in 2018 that raised money for grassroots organizations fighting discriminatory policies. Her art is colorful, powerful, and provocative. Three of Politicolor's favorite things!
Talking about hard truths is all about persistence. You might also enjoy a recurring conversation about the "Art of Power", a WBEZ podcast hosted by Aarti Shahani. Her conversation last November with Nikole Hannah-Jones is a heaping helping of food for thought.
Look for that conversation under the banner, "Journalism is not a 'neutral' profession." (FYI: That's a Spotify link; WBEZ didn't offer a direct link to a specific episode)
This is what resilience sounds like. "A Letter to Ukraine from Sarajevo" is a four-minute listen on BBC Sounds.# Sample Markdown