Justice Sonia Sotomayor: The “Wise Latina” Makes History Intentionally
This Women’s History Month, I want to pay special attention to women leaders who are making history today. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is one woman who is not only making history; she is consciously and deliberately doing so—and telling the story.
In January, Justice Sotomayor released her memoir, “My Beloved World,” which provided an honest look at the life of an American leader. While her role in the government is often sanitized, and many people have no idea what the life of a Supreme Court justice is like, Sotomayor reminds her readers that she, too, is a human being.
Sotomayor comes from humble beginnings. As a young girl from the Bronx, she had to administer her own insulin injections. Both of her parents emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, and she lost her father at nine years old. At Princeton, she advocated for Latinos by setting up an action group for Puerto Ricans on campus and by lobbying for Latino professors to join the Ivy League’s ranks.
Even though her job requires her to remain dispassionate about her work, Sotomayor comes off a bit more emotionally in-tune than her colleagues. As the third woman and first Hispanic to join the Supreme Court, her individuality in the courtroom sets a positive example. Understanding her own significance allows her to advocate for the progress of other women and other Latinas who need someone of high authority to be in the public scope, to be visible—to be a role model who can inspire others to achieve as she has done.
During her 2009 confirmation hearings, she was challenged for having speculated in a 2001 speech that a “wise Latino woman” could see issues through a special and useful lens—in other words that gender and ethnicity do make a difference—an asset in her view.
Sotomayor’s understanding of her importance, her ability embrace the ‘power to,’ is liberating for all women, especially Hispanics. In no way does she re-institute social norms—she’s smart, she’s in charge, and she knows it. She ascended to her current rank because she saw herself as an equal to her many male colleagues at Princeton, at law firms, and within the federal government.
While Sotomayor’s rulings have largely been moderate, the self-described independent is a symbol of feminism. If she’s not an encapsulated vision of what any woman—regardless of class or race—can become in 21st century America, I don’t know what is. She’s just as important a marker of change as Sandra Day O’Connor.
For the first time, we have a Latina in a a courtroom that was once white-washed.
About the Author
Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead, is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She teaches "Women, Power, and Leadership" at Arizona State University and was named to Vanity Fair's Top 200 women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers.