As we get closer to the hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, I expect we will have to endure yet another season of vulgar sexism. Sonia Sotomayor had to refute allegations that she was too strident and bossy; Kagan is already facing speculation that she’s a lesbian—in that unfortunate schoolyard universe where, as with Hillary Clinton before her, “lesbian” is defined only as “unwomanly.” This has nothing to do with Kagan’s actual sexual orientation, whatever it might be; rather, I believe it is testament to the work that remains to be done. Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered.
Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.
This story is interesting not merely for what it reveals about embedded sexual stereotypes; it also tells us that these stereotypes are not written in stone. If the notion of a female surgeon is inconceivable to a particular audience within a certain time frame, it is surely the product of history, politics and practice. Thus stated, it would appear that a significant shift in the number of women in medicine would change those perceptions, challenge the underlying assumption. Similarly, in a field like law, where about half of law students are women, one would anticipate that their sheer numbers would render their presence a nonissue.
If, however, the very word “surgeon” or “lawyer” is still unconsciously gendered, then integrating medical and law schools will be a much more layered project. If that is the case, then we’re battling not just the on-the-ground challenge of getting women into medical school but also the conceptual difficulty of allowing them to be surgeons and women simultaneously. This latter problem depends on how deeper levels of culture and meaning are processed and understood.
The blogosphere is ablaze with comments about how Kagan does her hair or whether she wears pants (Hillary Clinton was married, so she was accused of “wearing the pants in the family”). This chatter isn’t really about Kagan’s sexual preference as much as it is about whether she exhibits masculine traits. The interrogation is not limited to her style or fashion sense but, as with Sotomayor, is about her personality and hobbies. She likes poker! She swings a softball bat! Not only does anything she touches suddenly get characterized as a male pursuit; she is amply endowed with a Midas touch of testosterone. Success itself is masculinized.
Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University, studies whether the languages we speak shape the way we think. She has showed empirically that lexical or syntactic differences affect how we think about objects or concepts. For example, in German the word for “bridge” is feminine; in Spanish, French and other Romance languages it’s masculine. Boroditsky has shown that in German, native speakers tend to describe bridges as elegant or beautiful, whereas Spanish or French speakers generally refer to a bridge in masculine terms: as strong and massive and muscular. They don’t just speak of the bridge as such—they think of it as such; they feel it as such.
English speakers might anticipate that the power of such cognitive categorizing would extend to us through other kinds of expressive traces. Perhaps it ought to prompt us to interrogate historically raced or gendered words—if not nouns generally, then particular professions dominated by totemic phenotypes: where “lawyer” is masculine or “nurse” is feminine, or “president” is white and “alien” is brown.
Similarly, there is research to suggest that even races are gendered in our culture. Psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff has done studies showing that blackness tends to be hypermasculinized while Asian-ness tends to be hyperfeminized. This means not just that black men are seen as more masculine than other men but that black women, too, are perceived as more masculine than other women and are more often mistaken for being male. Likewise, not only are Asian women perceived as hyperfeminine; Asian men are seen as much more feminine than other men. This kind of invisible taxonomizing may lead one unconsciously to think of, say, a black woman in a formal evening gown as “funny looking” or as though she were in drag. It may lead one unconsciously to look at an Asian man in a law firm as not strong enough to lean on the big difficult client. Even when we are committed to diversifying the workplace, we cannot ignore the deeper, subtler resistance to anything or anyone who looks “out of place.”
Of course, a good part of the drubbing Elena Kagan will face is calculated politics as usual. But I think the very persistence of narratives of unwomanliness with which to browbeat women in public or professional life suggests that the quest for integration, equality and political legitimacy is linked to problems of cognition, language and culture. It also suggests that we might want to incorporate some of this new knowledge into our strategies for overcoming social disparities and glass ceilings.