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March 2, 2022 Making History

For this week’s contribution to the Whitman Today newsletter, the Division of Diversity and Inclusion wanted to provide some commentary about Women’s History Month. This is not to reinforce a gender binary or promote particular forms of gender expression, but as an effort to disrupt a sexist status quo. Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion John Johnson reached out to Associate Professor of Politics Susanne Beechy, who generously offered these thoughts about the significance of the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson both fits and breaks the mold of Supreme Court justice. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first Black woman nominated to the highest court in the United States. Her identity as a Black woman surely does matter. The buzzword “intersectionality” circulates widely these days and helps us to understand, here at the intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, what it might mean to have not only a Black justice or a female justice, but also a Black woman justice. Intersectionality also reminds us that our social locations can help inform how we see the world and enrich the perspectives we bring to our work. 

Watching Judge Brown Jackson’s nomination, I was reminded of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking article in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” wherein she first articulates the concept of intersectionality through an analysis of the ways in which Black women fall through the antidiscrimination framework of U.S. law. The concept of intersectionality grows from the observations that the law cannot see Black women, and now we have a Black woman nominated to the highest court. 

A moment for celebration indeed, though also a reminder that change is needed to an entire structure, not just the diversity of its occupants. In her book, Still Unequal, Lorraine Dusky argues:

No matter how you define it, for women the law remains profoundly biased and discriminatory and in need of a massive overhaul. Yes, advances are being made. Yes. Yes. Yes. But a mountain of evidence proves beyond doubt that no matter how far we have come, we have not traveled very far at all. Prejudice against women, some of it unconscious, permeates the justice dispensed in our courtrooms. And because any nation’s legal system reinforces and shapes cultural attitudes, the shameful inequities in our laws and courtrooms today will be promulgated well into the next century.

But then again, might not a change to legal reasoning and precedent be brought in part by changing who decides the cases and writes the opinions? While Ketanji Brown Jackson is already remarkable as the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court, it would be her judicial opinions which would be her lasting contribution toward justice in America. In the midst of these disquieting times of trauma and national conflict, we can try to pause and celebrate this intersecting moment of both Black and Women’s History. 

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