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State of the State: Our Representation Should Mirror Our Population in its Diversity

Jamey Dunn
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The idea that a judicial candidate whose background is counter to the white male majority would bring a different perspective to the bench became a prevalent topic of discussion during the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But the concept that public servants with different backgrounds strengthen discourse is not new, or without merit. While the nation and the state of Illinois have made great strides in choosing female candidates for positions of power, the statistics are still dismal.

When the diversity of our political representation fails to mirror the diversity of our populace, we all miss out on the benefit of a variety of perspectives that only come from lives walked in different sets of shoes.

An infamous quote from Sotomayor’s past became known in the media as her “wise Latina” statement: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

The context of the quote was largely lost in the din of news coverage surrounding her confirmation hearings. Sotomayor made the statement in 2001 as part of a lecture titled, “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” delivered at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law. 

Agree or disagree with the sentiment of that one line, her overall speech highlights the disparity in America’s judiciary and makes a strong case for the benefit of having more women and minorities on the bench. If you have not read it, I would recommend taking the time. It was published by the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal and can be found at the New York Times’ website.

Sotomayor said that although it is the duty of judges to strive for impartiality, having judges with varied backgrounds makes our justice system stronger and ultimately fairer. “I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that — it’s an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging.”

She acknowledges that people can and often do empathize with the needs and views of others who are different from themselves, but she cautions that our own backgrounds create the lenses through which we filter information.

“We should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. … However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Others simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar.”

A few years after giving that speech, Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court justice, joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the bench as the only two women. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s recent confirmation brings the number of female justices to three out of nine, still far from representational of the ratio of females to males in the greater population. However, the rate at which women are being appointed has greatly accelerated. More than a decade passed between President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and President Bill Clinton’s appointment of Ginsburg, compared with less than a year between Sotomayor and Kagan. 

In former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s book — Pearls, Politics and Power, published in 2008 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co. — she tackles the topic of why groups such as minorities, individuals with lower incomes and women are underrepresented in basically all areas of government. Kunin, the first and only female governor of her state, focuses on women: 

“I wonder why we aren’t reaching young women and getting them more involved in elective politics. What is wrong with the political system that participation does not seem worth the effort? And what is wrong with contemporary feminism?” Kunin writes. 

She argues that women tend to advocate for issues that men may not push, such as child care, education and environmental policy, and that it is important to have their input when setting a political agenda.

“Many men advocate for so-called women’s issues, but they have not experienced them personally. The difference is intensity, and in politics, intensity matters. Intensity not only changes the agenda; it changes what gets to the top of the agenda. Politics is competitive, not only about who gets elected but also about what gets done.” 

According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, Illinois ranks 16th out of the states for the percentage of women in the legislature, with 27 percent. Not bad in comparison with the rest of the country, but still not representative of our population. Illinois has never had a female governor. There are only four women in our 19-member congressional delegation, and only one woman currently holds a statewide elected office.

Across the country, there are 17 female U.S. senators out of 100 seats and 73 U.S. representatives out of 435 seats. There are six female governors. Women of color constitute less than 5 percent of all state legislators. At press time, eight women have won primaries for U.S. Senate and 87 for the U.S. House, with one race going into a runoff election. Seven female gubernatorial candidates have won primaries, with one candidate in a runoff race. 

Kunin makes the point that gender and race bias do not always come from a place of active sexism or racism. “Psychological science has overwhelmingly demonstrated that sexist behaviors, gender bias and discrimination can and do occur without these conscious beliefs or attempts to discriminate.” 

An old riddle illustrates that concept as it applies to gender bias: A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to the hospital, where the surgeon says: “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son.” The person trying to solve the riddle is then asked, “How can this be?” I remember being asked that as a child and being stumped. The problem is that many people do not consider that the surgeon is the boy’s mother because they typically think of a surgeon as a man. It isn’t that they are being actively sexist or thinking a woman cannot be a surgeon. It is just that their mental picture of a surgeon is a man.

Kunin says that is often a view that women extend to themselves. She says women typically have to be asked to run for public office because they do not necessarily see themselves as potential officeholders without some external prompting. 

Programs such as Ready to Run, which is conducted by the Center for Women and Politics, help give women the tools and perspective to make a bid for office. The bipartisan training program instructs potential female candidates on everything from fundraising to party politics and includes workshops specifically aimed at minority candidates. The group’s website is:ReadytoRun.

Kunin adds that the idea of not being able to visualize women in certain roles especially needs to be tackled in the executive branch. “We are beginning to know what a congresswoman, female CEO, mayor and college president look like, or more importantly, act like. We don’t yet know what a female commander in chief should look like, or more importantly, act like.” 

The way that will happen is when trailblazers start to challenge and then reshape our concepts of a powerful public servant. 

Kunin looks to Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, who also ran for president in 1972. Chisholm wrote in her memoir: “I knew I could not become President. But the time had come when persons other than males could run for the presidency of this country. Why couldn’t a woman run? Why couldn’t a black person run? I was angry that everything always, always, rebounded to the benefit of white males.”

Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois, the first and only African-American woman to serve in the Senate, told Kunin that she ran for the presidency in 2004 to show girls such as her then-10-year-old niece that they could someday seek the highest office in the country. When asked whether she would have guessed then that in the next Democratic presidential primary, the top candidates would be a woman, Hillary Clinton, and an African-American, Barack Obama, Moseley Braun said she did see the potential for that historic race. 

“Uh-huh, I would. I was out there, and I saw how people reacted and listened to what I had to say. The public is way ahead of the political class on a lot of this stuff.” 

That is the goal: that our statehouses, courtrooms and governor’s mansions all match the diversity that we see in our everyday lives. Then it will become the norm, and multiple perspectives from many walks of life will flow through debate, just as they do outside those places in our everyday lives. 

Kunin says change will require a positive outlook and perhaps a little bit of outrage.

“To arrive at equal representation, we must mobilize both our anger and our optimism: anger at what is wrong in America and optimism that it can be changed for the better.”


The context of [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s] quote was largely lost in the din of news coverage surrounding her confirmation hearings.

Illinois Issues, September 2010

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