Archive for July, 2010


Practical Matters “Addressed” By The First Women Supreme Court Justices

Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg no doubt have paved the way for Sonia Sotomayor and soon Elena Kagan to serve on the Supreme Court.  With the monumental progress that these women have made to the equality of the Supreme Court, sometimes I think the little things are lost.  I was amused by a C-Span special that includes interviews with Supreme Court justices which aired in 2009 during  C-SPAN’s “Supreme Court Week.  In it,  Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflect  on their choices (and lack of ) of judicial robes and collars.  Sandra Day O’Connor describes a note that she received from a person in the audience during oral arguments one day early in her tenure as a justice.  The note read:  “I have been in the audience watching the court today, and I noticed that you did not have a judicial collar.  Now all your colleagues were wearing white shirt collars and they showed under their robes.  You just looked like a washed out judge.”  O’Connor said she “took the note to heart” and began to research where she could buy a collar.   She discovered that both robes and collars are difficult to find for women on the Supreme Court.  Justice Ginsburg is shown giving a tour of her work closet to C-Span’s Brian Lamb and notes that one of her robes is from England and the collar is from Cape Town, South Africa. 

Next month, I’m enthused and grateful to have the opportunity to interview Justice Ginsburg in her chamber for a writing project I started around the Christmas holiday, and have since begun in earnest to work on again.  I won’t be asking anything about her judicial wardrobe and  I have some good questions planned.     I welcome any thoughtful ones you might have, too so please send me any questions you have for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Molding Dreams into Reality

“I immediately discredit her when a pretty woman speaks on these shows,” surprisingly said my college-bound nineteen year old son this morning while watching a Sunday morning political show.  I wasn’t watching, but I could hear one female voice among a chorus of men and she was complaining about something going on in the country.  I told Ian he had a “beauty bias” but he didn’t engage me.   I’m an optimist, so I’m optimistic that  a few years in college will help Ian’s views evolve.  Especially since he’ll be attending Oberlin College, where Lucy Stone was the first woman ever to graduate.  She was one of the early women speakers who gained a wide audience for her speeches on equality.  None other than Susan B. Anthony considered Stone “more eloquent than any other mortal woman speaker.”  

I’m thoroughly enjoying several books by Robert T. Oliver a prolific former head of the PSU speech communication department.  I was delighted this morning when I got to page 438 if his 566 page tome, The History of Public Speaking in America and read the heading “Women Take the Platform.”   I wasn’t sure he would include early women speakers.   He wrote:  “It was on a Fourth of July, 1828, that the first recorded public speech by a woman was delivered int he United States, by a Scottish immigrant educator, Frances Wright, in the communist community she had founded in New Harmony, Indiana.”  Oliver traced the beginnings of women’s oratory in the United States, noting that “the first American-born woman to speak out publicly again these [women’s] conditions–and also for the abolition of slavery–was a Negress, Mrs. Frances Maria W. Stewart.”  He then traced the steps of the Grimke sisters and the efforts ten years later of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.    Robert Oliver admits that the women’s suffragist movement “had many beginnings, rooted in many personalities.”  I contend that these early women were indeed the pioneers who paved the way for the women who ran for president and will continue to do so. 

If you tour the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. like I did this past spring with a group of Penn State Lehigh Valley students, you are likely to see this statue.  

It includes pioneers for Woman’s Suffrage: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and an unknown future activist, who remains uncarved.  Who will she be?   The rest of this summer and fall I will be polling women students about their feelings about women and the United States presidency.  So stay tuned.  Though I can think of a few contemporary women who have already taken up the cause of the suffragist movement and deserve to be carved into this statue, perhaps the one who breaks that ultimate glass ceiling, the United State presidency, will give the artist work to do.


Beauty Can Get Pretty Ugly Sometimes

Oh, the ways to be irritated are many.  Here I am thinking about Elena Kagan, the fabulously historic wonders of having three women on the Supreme Court, when a friend said, “My teen daughter said, “She could dress a little better.”” Another friend said, “She’s not very attractive.”  What’s wrong with these people?  Nothing.  Appearance and the pros and cons of it are debated twenty-four seven in our country.  It seems that if a woman is pretty, she is probably dumb unless she is pretty without trying to be pretty:  does she color her hair?  Has she had Botox?  Is she overweight?  These topics and more are delved into in Deborah Rhode’s new and worthwhile book,  The Beauty Bias.  The lawyer in  Rhodes comes out, too.  She doesn’t just list the many instances of beauty bias (for and against beauty) but she offers some ways to counter it. 

Reading Rhode’s book and thinking of my own love-hate relationship with my appearance has made me wonder about the burden of appearance judgments on women in leadership positions.  I’ve never forgotten the words of a communication professor colleague  who described a new administrator at her college as, ” an Avon lady, real estate salesperson type.”  I wondered:  what type is that?  I realized that I’m probably one, too if it means preferring suits over separates, wearing mascara and lipstick and shoes with heels.  Does that wardrobe make me look less competent as a college professor?  I guess according to my colleague.  Avon anyone?

When I research women in politics and I note their clothing choices, I think, this is a “war” drobe — they go to battle every time they show up in an outfit because they are darned if they do and darned if they don’t.  

And this new writing project:  women who “could” have been president.  One of my colleagues said that appearance matters and we need to talk about it.  What do I know about what they look like?  What is attractive?  OK:  maybe many people will agree that Angelina Jolie is universally attractive, but let’s get real here.  I think Elena Kagan looks great.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  So let’s try to remember that.  

 Nichola Gutgold is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley.  She has written a review of The Beauty Bias for Senior Women Web and will share the link on Facebook once it is up!

July 2010
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