As snazzy and inspiring political nominees go—judicial or vice presidential as it were—Sonia Sotomayor is The UnPalin. Sure, Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court and McCains’s choice for the vice presidency share some key characteristics—chiefly the moving personal narrative known in politics as The Story. Neither woman came from an ordinary middle-class background, and both worked hard to achieve their current positions—Sotomayor a federal appeals judge, Sarah Palin the popular governor of Alaska. Both endured more than their share of life’s challenges, from Sotomayor’s childhood diabetes to Palin’s midlife pregnancy with a special-needs child. No silver spoons anywhere near them, no rich Daddies or easy roads. Scrappy Sonia and scrappy Sarah made it on their own.
Supporters of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin didn't agree on much, but neither group liked watching male politicians diss women.
But from the graffitied projects of the East Bronx, Sotomayor also made her way to the Ivy League, scooping up the academic credentials and degrees that are supposed to insulate you forever from haughty insinuations of inferior intelligence. Sarah Palin did no such thing, barely graduating college, and heading into the intellectually feeble field of television sportcasting before entering politics. When Palin hit the national stage last year, she paid the price demanded by the intelligentsia; regardless of her politics and with no evidence that she’d ever set foot in any Cambridge anywhere, both the left and the elitists of the right concluded she was simply a ditz. The more Palin spoke of her life experience as the mother of a Down syndrome baby or as a small-town mayor, the dumber she was. The political culture that had previously demanded candidates know the price of a quart of milk ridiculed one who really knew the price of Pampers. Oh, her inexperience in the things that mattered! If she’d had chunky ankles and an even more unfortunate fashion sense, she might have been Maggie Thatcher. A man, she might have been Ronald Reagan.
Back in the Bronx years before, perhaps instinctively, Sonia began the process, familiar to women, of working twice as hard as everyone else. By the time she got to Princeton, she knew she lacked the prep-school education of her peers, and she dove into grammar books. Aside from her degrees from Princeton and Yale, Sotomayor become known for her exceedingly detailed and dreary judicial briefs. Too thorough! Way too detailed. Now we know she won Princeton’s highest undergraduate award; we know she wrote her way onto the Yale Law Review; we know she wrote 380 majority opinions in 3,000 appeals cases. Are we simply cranky feminists to expect that the woman should, if nothing else, be above reproach on the intelligence front?
What is absolutely extraordinary at this moment is that anyone, anyone, is opposing Sotomayor on the matter of intellect, or, God help us, so-called temperament. Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) wonders if she has “the right intellect.” (The mere phrase “right intellect” boggles our wee mind. Is that too big or too small? Or perhaps the good senator invokes a Buddhist interpretation of intelligence? OK, never mind.) Unnamed sources in Jeffery Rosen’s New Republic piece sniff “she’s not that smart.” Come on.
It would be a stupid mistake for conservatives to take the road most traveled by the left in its decimation of Sarah Palin. Republicans or Democrats who resort to suggesting that smart women aren't should be sent to the political dunce’s auditorium, the wilderness dutifully staked out by the Republican Party. Why? I’d like to say because respecting women’s intelligence is the right thing to do. But I’ll be more practical. Question the intelligence of a woman who has worked hard and achieved much against odds, and you will really irritate women. Really. Ask those Hillary Clinton supporters and those Sarah Palin supporters. They didn’t agree on much, but neither group liked watching male politicians diss women.
Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh already know this. That’s why they’re hanging their Sotomayor attack hats on her “identity politics,” which apparently means the politics a woman espouses when she notes that her life experiences are, well, a little different than Newt’s and Rush’s.
Oppose Sotomayor, if you will, on her legal opinions, not on her credentials or cheerfulness. If conservatives want a fight, I suspect they’ll get a good one here. Me? I’m betting on the Puerto Rican gal from the Bronx.
Elaine Lafferty is a former staff correspondent at Time magazine and the Irish Times, features editor at More magazine, and editor in chief of Ms. magazine. She is co-author of My Turn at the Bully Pulpit with Greta Van Susteren.