Was Sandra Day O'Connor the first female justice on the Supreme Court of the United States - or the first woman justice?
A Google News search of "O'Connor 'first woman justice' " brought up 130 hits, including one from this newspaper. But "O'Connor 'first female justice' " brought up 540 hits; "female" beat "woman" better than 4 to 1.
The adjectival use of "woman" in this sense ticks some people off.
These include traditionalists who insist that "woman" is a noun, and "female" the corresponding adjective.
There's another group of conscientious objectors who hear phrases like "woman doctor" or "lady lawyer" and detect a patronizing tone, or a suggestion that a "woman doctor" is somehow "physician lite," less qualified than a "regular" doctor, understood to be male.
I'm not without some sympathy for both, but my own preference for contexts like the O'Connor retirement is to speak of her as a "woman justice."
"Female" in this sense sounds quaint - like "female suffrage" - and suggests corsets and fainting spells. "Male and female" is biblical, but also biological; it applies to animals, whereas "man" and "woman" refer specifically to humans, actors on the stage of politics, jurisprudence, the business world. "Male" and "female" are the language of the police blotter ("Male, approx. 6 foot, 2 in., black leather jacket, approached decoy ...") or the plumbing-supply store.
Anyone who thinks O'Connor has been "lawyer lite" hasn't been paying attention. And the fact of her being a woman was part of her story. (Do those black robes even come in misses' sizes? With buttons on the left?)
If we wanted to point to a single accession to high office that would show that the lot of women in America has truly changed since they were first granted the vote, we could do worse than to cite O'Connor's elevation to the high court. How has the language evolved during the O'Connor era?
We want to see inclusive language that does not go slack-jawed with amazement at the presence of women in public life. ("Oh, look! The House minority leader is wearing a skirt!") That speaks for, in the main, parallel usages for men and women. And yet our language also needs to reflect the fact that a woman's experience of life is different from a man's. That's why it's so important that our legislatures and courts, in particular, not just be open to women, from an equal-opportunity perspective, but include women, for substantive reasons as well.
A quick dash through the entry "woman" in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that through much of its history, it wasn't a term full of positive connotations. Oxford's first definition of "woman" is straightforward: "adult female human being." But it goes downhill from there. As a noun of address, "woman" is largely "pejorative or jocular," we read. The dictionary also introduces such lovely expressions as "to make a woman of," by which is meant, "to bring into submission."
How far we've come. O'Connor first stepped onto the national stage at the recommendation of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, her Stanford classmate and sometime date. Now she's concluding her career as Ted Kennedy's new ideal of judicial temperament.
It would seem that "to make a woman of," in its new juridical sense, may be construed to mean, "to turn (someone) into an independent, fair-minded consensus-builder, admired for an ability to frame the questions that have to be asked, and to interpret the Constitution in ways that make sense to ordinary people living their lives."
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