The XX Factor

Critics of Sotomayor Aren’t Guilty of Racism or Sexism. They’re Guilty of Ageism!

Meghan, I agree that the issue isn’t really one of reverse-discrimination , even if think Hanna is right that Sotomayor’s views on affirmative action may sound dated to some contemporary ears. Rather, the issue, I think, is similar to one that arose during last year’s Democratic presidential primary. Then the election was often portrayed in terms of identity politics, much as Sotomayor’s nomination is now. It was black (Obama) v. woman (Hillary), with criticisms of either dismissed as so much racism or sexism. But to me, the far more distinguishing characteristic of both candidates, and of Sotomayor, has less to do with their sex or skin color than with their respective ages. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to understand how race or gender played out in their lives until you know when they were born.

Obama, crucially, is 14 years younger than Hillary. As a result, he wasn’t part of the civil rights movement. He was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement-and there’s a big difference. For all the genuine obstacles he overcame, he enjoyed a kind of ease and place in the world that for many black men (or women of any color) would have been unfathomable even 15 years earlier. By the time he reached adulthood, for example, it wasn’t unusual for an accomplished man to marry a graduate of Princeton (which didn’t admit women until 1969). This, in turn, surely informed his and Michelle’s relationship and marriage going forward.

By contrast, Hillary wasn’t the beneficiary of the women’s rights movement. Being so much older, she was the women’s rights movement-and as a result, her life and career are necessarily messier and full of more contradictions than for younger women, for whom she helped blaze a trail. Much of what people criticized her for during the election-her stridency, her career and romantic choices, her voice and ever-changing hairstyles, even her privilege-always struck me as largely a function simply of her having come first.

Sotomayor is almost exactly seven years older than Obama and seven years younger than Hillary-a lifetime, in many ways, in both directions. She could attend Princeton (as Hillary could not), but was in only the fourth class to admit women-a far cry, presumably, from Michelle’s experience nearly a decade later, when women and minorities were no longer such a novelty. In sum, part of the diversity Sotomayor will bring to the court, if confirmed, is not merely her sex or ethnicity, but how both have interacted with the particular age in which she grew up-which is as different from mine as it is from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s and Sandra Day O’Connor’s. To that older generation of women, Sotomayor’s outspokenness that Dahlia and Emily have alluded to is probably as unfamiliar as it is to women in their 20s. In the confirmation process, it will be interesting to learn how Sotomayor’s perspective has adjusted, over the years, as the world has changed around her. But in asking that her present temper her past (rather than the other way around), I hope we won’t deny, as I sometimes felt we did with Hillary, the age-related uniqueness of her story.