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The Sotomayor-Gingrich Controversy According to Standpoint Theory & Identity Politics

A Latina Woman Behind the Bench and a White Man Behind the Mask

Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Fransisco, California in 2013.  
The focus of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s speech at Berkeley Law School in 2001 is that in order to argue for more women and people of color to be present on the bench, a new definition and description of Latino identity must be created. Sotomayor expresses in her speech that her “Newyorkrican” nationality and her experiences growing up in a rich Latino culture surrounded by her Puerto Rican family mean she identifies as such, but she questions how, in America, the tension between a celebration of ethnic diversity and a need for color- and race-blindness can ground a person’s true cultural identity. In order to reach a conclusion on the issue of identity, Sotomayor makes the claim that, though there has been a “quantum leap” (Sotomayor, 2001) in the number of Latinos and women in legal positions, there is still much to be done to show a complete representation of men and women, but specifically women of color, behind the bench. Sotomayor received backlash from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called Sotomayor a “racist” in 2009 for her remarks during the speech that she hoped the experiences of a Latina woman would help her make better judging decisions than a white male who has not had those experiences. The controversy over Sotomayor’s speech about creating a definition of identity for women of color in legal positions and Gingrich’s uninformed comments can be situated within two theories of feminism: Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality and Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory.


In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” (1993), Crenshaw introduces identity politics, or the process of recognizing that “race, gender, and other identity categories” are normally treated as a vehicle for “bias or domination,” wherein the objective is to “exclude and marginalize those who are different” (279), and claims that identity politics must be used as social empowerment to fight the power of domination. The problem with identity politics, Crenshaw claims, is that it often ignores “intragroup differences” (279)—the idea that groups of marginalized people are often of mixed races and genders, which Crenshaw identifies as intersectionality. Sotomayor, for example, is a person of color and a woman—a combination she recognizes as putting her in the category of Other, as she states that her struggle as a Latina woman did not create her Latina identity, but rather her experiences as someone of a “unique” culture did (Sotomayor, 2001). Gingrich’s argument against Sotomayor is of a greater meaning than just that she made a “racist” remark, rather he represents the very “power of domination” Crenshaw claims identity politics evokes. While Gingrich does acknowledge the difference between Sotomayor’s being a Latina woman and making that “racist” remark and being a white man, he fails to recognize the ramifications of Sotomayor’s very point: that the identity of a person of color also being a woman is what empowers her, but also what inhibits her.

This white male ignorance of a woman of color’s struggle is what Crenshaw might place in the context of violence against women that is often a highlight of the issues of identity politics. Though Crenshaw’s focus is on physically battered women, the Sotomayor controversy can be placed within Crenshaw’s intersectional framework of representational violence against women in Gingrich’s accusations. Gingrich fails to recognize fully how Sotomayor’s being both a Latina and a woman give her a unique experiential perspective as a judge when he calls her only “racist” and not also “sexist.” Crenshaw claims that such an omission of difference in identity politics is problematic “because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class” (279, emphasis mine), and states that ignoring these differences, as Gingrich does, creates a kind of tension within groups struggling for identity in the midst of politicizing violence against women.

Along with Crenshaw’s claim that identity politics dominates and oppresses people on the borders of different races and genders, she notes that political intersectionality forces women of color into two often conflicting groups of political agendas: woman of color, and yet, antiracist discourse and feminist discourse fail to consider that a person of color experiencing racism can also be a female, and that a female experiencing antifeminism can also be of color (282). She asserts that when a person’s identity is separated into either “woman” or “person of color”, the “identity of women of color [is relegated to] a location that resists telling” (279). Gingrich separates Sotomayor’s gender from her race by calling her a “racist” against whites, but does not accuse her of sexism against men, and used one of those identities against her by misconstruing her words. Thus, she is unable to tell the story in her speech of being a Latina woman with a rich cultural background. The inherent deletion of one identity in a person with multiple identities is what Crenshaw would call an issue of “categorization” (298).

The categorization of women of color into one identifying group over the other is problematic, as Crenshaw claims this kind of categorization is “not a one-way street” (298), and that those people who identify on the margins of categorization often struggle to create a narrative of their experience. As Crenshaw says, “Other[ed] women are silenced as much by being relegated to the margin of experience as by total exclusion,” which aligns with Gingrich’s ignorance of Sotomayor’s point that it is experience alone that separates the white man from the Latina woman, and not merely racial or gender identity. Crenshaw’s claims of the issues with identity politics are political in nature, as she states that “the narratives of gender are based on the experiences of white, middle-class women, and the narratives of race are based on the experience of [men of color]” (299). In the context of the Sotomayor-Gingrich controversy, Crenshaw might argue here, where is there room, then, for the experience of a woman who is also of color? Thus, Gingrich, a white man without the experiences of both a gender and a race narrative which places him in the margins, as so for Sotomayor (both the “othered” woman and the “othered” Latina), deletes that space for her. Crenshaw’s theory of identity politics surrounds this controversy with the issues raised in political intersectionality.

Nancy Hartsock, in “The Feminist Standpoint: Toward a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism (1983), discusses how the feminist standpoint theory works at an epistemological level, specifically how we can start to understand “why patriarchal institutions and ideologies take such perverse and deadly forms” (354). She shows how the standpoint theory works in relation to women’s experience through the sexual division of labor, and strives to do so by searching “for central commonalities across race and class boundaries” (354), thus demonstrating an understanding of how the sexual division of labor affects women of color.

The standpoint theory is particularly relevant to the Sotomayor-Gingrich controversy, as the controversy gives rise to issues Hartsock might call “the perverseness and inhumanity of human relations” (366). These “human relations” are present in Sotomayor’s speech, especially in her claim that “the Latina side of my identity was forged and closely nurtured by my family through our shared experiences and traditions” (Sotomayor, 2001). It is these kinds of relationships and close, shared experiences between women and other people that Hartsock emphasizes when she addresses female identity as associated with their experiences.

Sotomayor claims her “Latina soul was nourished” by the expressive, unique cultural traditions her family partook in, and ultimately claims that these experiences as a Latina woman help her and other ethnic people to understand “the values and needs of people from a different group,” and in turn make more informed decisions on the bench (Sotomayor, 2001). She claims further that “personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see,” a point that Hartsock would agree with. Hartsock discusses the differences between men’s and women’s activity and its effects on their construction of self. She states that men, who work primarily outside of the home focusing on “necessity and interchange with nature as well as with other human beings” have a less complete “immersion in the world” of labor than women, whose work inside the home and for wages makes her well-equipped in “concrete, many-qualitied, changing material processes” (357); this in turn gives the woman more room to create close bonds with other people outside of woman’s activity. Sotomayor demonstrates the ability to impart her shared experiences with other strong women and men of rich Latino culture, in those “good experiences” she had playing cards at her grandmother’s house and listening to merengue at family parties into “areas with which I am unfamiliar” (Sotomayor, 2001).

Gingrich’s comments about Sotomayor’s “racist” remarks regarding a Latina woman’s informed legal decisions taking bigger strides in the courtroom over a white man’s decisions made without those rich cultural experiences of the Latina woman fall into line with Hartsock’s assertion: women’s experience, especially when immersed in “a variety of connectedness and continuities with other persons" and with the natural world, “not only inverts that of men,” but exposes the basis on which masculinity is made “fundamentally perverse” (363).

Further, Sotomayor exemplifies the woman with full, rich experience and a sense of self constructed through those experiences when she states, “I aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations” (Sotomayor, 2001). Sotomayor’s awareness of how her experiences as a woman of color make her a more informed judge and person can be examined through Hartsock’s psychoanalytical exploration of women’s construction of self as connected to human relations. Hartsock states that girls stay attached to their mothers for longer than boys, and thus find themselves continuous with her and with others, meaning they reach adulthood “with a more complex layering of affective ties and a rich, ongoing inner set of object relations.” She compares this relational ability to boys, whose “simpler Oedipal situation and clear and early resolution, have repressed ties” to others, and concludes that women, as a result, “define and experience themselves relationally, and men do not” (360). Here, Hartsock stakes a claim that women are inherently more relational beings, with the ability to relate to others compassionately and subjectively based on their own experiences and self-identity. Gingrich, with his one-sided argument that, essentially, the point of Sotomayor’s speech was that a Latina woman is a better judge than a white man, clearly demonstrates his inability to see Sotomayor’s claim that her rich heritage enables her to connect with the stories and experiences of other people, more so than someone in the same legal position who has not “lived that [same] life” (Sotomayor, 2001).

Hartsock, then, might argue that Gingrich’s background as a white, middle-class man has led him to a less-informed life of experiences than Sotomayor’s, and this gives him the leverage to make the accusation that Sotomayor’s assertion of culturally-driven relational experiences makes her a “racist,” showing a kind of “abstract masculinity” defined in Hartsock’s work. She claims that women’s experience exposes a kind of masculinity that “reverses the proper valuation of human activity” (Hartsock, 363), which implies that a man (Gingrich) may perhaps be presenting a false masculinity wherein the man does not uplift human activity based on shared experience, but rather oppresses those people who do (Sotomayor).

Hartsock concludes that the feminist standpoint “emerges out of the contradiction between the systematically differing structures of men’s and women’s life activity in Western cultures” (366), a claim that rings especially true when considering a case like Sotomayor and Gingrich’s. The controversy surrounding Sotomayor’s speech stems from the very differing structures of life and culture that Hartsock notes, as Gingrich represents the nonexperiential male with less ability to use experience to make connections, and Sotomayor represents Hartsock’s woman with the traditional ability to make human connections based on her experiences. Much like the claim Crenshaw makes that race and gender as part of political intersectionality creates problems for identity politics, Hartsock’s standpoint theory uses the ability in women to make connections and find that “location of telling” to demonstrate that the division of men’s and women’s experiences often leads to issues between genders. According to the theory of identity politics, groups of people with different identity categories must not be marginalized based on their separated race and gender. Standpoint theory does not differ from identity politics and intersectionality in that it compares the construction of identity as it relates to race and gender as integral parts of experience. Sotomayor’s Berkeley Law speech and the Gingrich controversy, then, can be situated within both frameworks as an example of the fundamental marginalization of women of color.

Works Cited

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality,  Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color." The Feminist Philosophy Reader. By Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo. N.p.: McGraw Hill, 2008. 279-300. Web.

Hartsock, Nancy. “The Feminist Standpoint: Toward a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” Feminist Theory Reader, Local and Global Perspectives. Edited by Carole R. McCann and Seung Kyung Kim. Third ed. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2013. 354-366. Web.

Sotomayor, Sonia. "A Latina Judge's Voice." Berkeley La Raza Law Journal's Twelfth Annual Symposium. California, Berkeley. 10 Mar. 2017. Speech.

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