Opponents of Jackson’s nomination seem intent on using misinformation to stoke fear about a Black women in power by intentionally conjuring images of chaos in the streets and child endangerment.
The historic hearings held last week for the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court made plain the virulent misogyny leveled at women—especially women of color, and Black women in particular—who dare aspire to positions of power in the public sphere. Jackson’s treatment by Republican lawmakers during the proceedings has been decried as “disgraceful” and characterized by “racist, sexist mudslinging.” The labels of racism and sexism, though apt, are inadequate and insufficiently precise to fully explain the power dynamics on display in the hearings that serve a gatekeeping role as to who might ascend to the nation’s highest court.
Lawmakers who repeatedly interrupted Jackson during the proceedings made clear that they did not believe she deserved—literally or metaphorically—to have a hearing. With their theatrical and strategic interruptions, they sought to silence her rebuttal to their mischaracterization of her record. While the hearings are intended for nominees to have their say, some Republican senators, including Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), rudely spoke over Judge Jackson over and over again, grandstanding and seeking to portray her—the first Black woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court, whose credentials have been touted as impeccable—in a warped and disqualifying light.
When women challenge gender norms by seeking powerful positions traditionally held by men, they can be villainized through damaging, often concocted, stories that provide a focus, sometimes fictional, for the rage felt for would-be female power transgressors.
Being talked over in harsh tones is standard sexist and racist fare that Jackson endured as many women and people of color have historically done: With composure and restraint, lest they be considered “temperamentally unfit.” The sexist treatment of Jackson serves as both a display of dominance on the part of aggressive questioners and a possible attempt on their part to goad her into responding emotionally or angrily—which would play into sexist stereotypes of women as hormonal or hysterical, undercutting perceptions of her ability to exercise judicial forbearance.
Sexism, as explained by philosopher Kate Manne, thus seeks and serves to justify social arrangements that have privileged men and white people in the longstanding systems of society and government where they have historically held sway, by attempting to show women and people of color as less fit or deserving to hold positions of public authority.
Misogyny, Manne says, goes even further by serving as an enforcement mechanism that helps perpetuate the system in which men control a disproportionately large share of power, as they do in the halls of Congress and on the Supreme Court. Of the 12,491 individuals who have served as representatives, senators or both, 397 have been women; of the 115 people nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, all but seven have been white men.) Misogynoir, a term coined by feminist scholar Moya Bailey, speaks to the intersection of discrimination experienced by Black women, based on both gender and race, that serves to stymie advancements in their representation.
Both the manner and the substance of the line of attack against Judge Jackson can be seen as misogynist mechanisms of enforcement of the patriarchal order. One predominant angle of questioning focused on Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) portrayal of her as sympathetic to pedophiles and child pornographers, which has been debunked as false and misleading. Nonetheless, Hawley persisted in decrying her purported “alarming sentencing leniency for sex criminals, especially for those preying on children” on his website, while Cruz questioned what he alleged as her “disturbing pattern” of giving sex offenders “substantially weaker” sentences.
In the course of conducting a 2019 study on the gendered implications of fake news, my co-authors and I found that when women challenge gender norms by seeking powerful positions traditionally held by men, they can be villainized through damaging, often concocted, stories that provide a focus, sometimes fictional, for the rage felt for would-be female power transgressors.
Those who would prefer to preclude a changing social order that would include Black women as power brokers in its ranks, exhibit their willingness to employ troubling but time-honored tactics including sexism and misogyny to hold that day at bay.
Hillary Clinton was tarred with similar baseless conspiracy theories when she ran for president in 2016. The “Pizzagate” fake news story that circulated at that time, including allegations of cannibalism and Satanism, incongruously claimed that Clinton was operating a child sex ring in tunnels under the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. We concluded that “there can be more backlash against women for violating gender norms that have excluded them from positions of power than for men who act badly in conforming to gender norms of male entitlement and sexual dominance”—because we found that this outlandish story got more traction on social media than the real life “Pussygate” story of Trump boasting about sexual assault in the Access Hollywood tapes revealed just before the election.
Women have not been the only ones smeared by political opponents with baseless accusations of supporting or participating in pedophilia. There is long history of conservative politicians employing this tactic against Democrats, which has been identified as having more to do with fear of a changing social order than with a desire to protect fictionalized child victims.
Since “hurting children is one of the worst things you can say someone is doing. It’s an easy way to demonize your enemy,” according to Professor Kathryn Olmsted. It is an especially stinging accusation against women, who are expected to embody feminine virtues of caretaking and nurturing, and who can be subjected to punishing pushback for pursuing positions that were formerly exclusive bastions of male authority, such as the presidency or a seat on the Supreme Court.
Crying “soft on crime” is a classic conservative clarion call, particularly with racial overtones. In addition to the spurious allegations about inadequate sentencing for child pornography offenders by Hawley and others, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) alleged that Jackson had advocated for 1,500 D.C. criminal defendants to be released “en masse into the streets,” mischaracterizing a concern that Judge Jackson had expressed regarding prisoners early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Opponents of Jackson’s nomination seem intent on stoking fear about how a Black women might exercise judicial authority by intentionally conjuring images of chaos in the streets and child endangerment.
While many, like Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), celebrate the symbolic importance of the first Black woman ascending to the nation’s highest court, those who would prefer to preclude that changing social order, which would include Black women as power brokers in its ranks, are exhibiting their willingness to employ troubling but time-honored tactics including sexism and misogyny to hold that day at bay.