Over four days of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I saw the patience of a woman who knows that impatience is not an option. I saw the weariness of a woman who knows she is not allowed to be tired. I saw the canniness of woman who knows what it means to be judged by her decisions and who judges herself harshly, too — perhaps even more harshly than many of the senators on the dais.
I saw this woman be asked to define what it means to be a woman, and to answer that she could not do so.
In case you missed the exchange, it began with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asking “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” as she questioned Jackson about a transgender athlete.
“Can I provide a definition? No. I can’t,” responded Jackson.
It was clear what kind of answer Blackburn wanted: Something chromosomal. Something to do with uteri or double X’s or estrogen — never mind the millions of women (postmenopausal, post-hysterectomied, infertile or living with Turner syndrome) who would not fit those definitions. Or maybe what Blackburn wanted was exactly what she got: Jackson declining to answer so that conservative groups could use that as political fodder.
Seeing Jackson in this exchange brought to mind a Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart, who in 1964 declined to provide a definition for pornography. “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,” Potter said. “But I know it when I see it.”
Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings were four days of defining what it means to be a woman. And I don’t know a single woman — cis or trans — who couldn’t see it.
She defined what it meant to be a woman every time she sat with a placid smile through accusations that she was lenient on child pornographers or that she was paid for by “dark money.” The placid smile is the armor and expectation of womanhood. “For overqualified women who have to remain calm, friendly, knowledgeable and professional in front of underqualified men,” wrote one admirer of Jackson’s online. “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.”
She defined what it meant to be a woman when she spoke about the impossible balancing act of work and motherhood. “I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right,” Jackson said to her daughters in a roomful of mostly male senators who probably never felt pressure to make bake-sale cupcakes at dawn before hearing an important case.
She defined what it meant to be a woman — specifically a Black woman — in the long seconds it took her to find a response to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) demanding, “Do you agree … that babies are racist?” while he displayed pictures from a children’s book. She was measuring her words in front of a man who held her future in his hands. She seemed to be making an effort not to offend him even as he said offensive things.
She was a woman when she quietly dabbed her eyes after a heartfelt tribute from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — “You’re here, and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat” — and then probably had to wonder whether her tears would be seen as too emotional for a Supreme Court justice. Too emotional in the wrong way. A womanly way.
I am reminded of a moment in Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, involving an accomplished Black woman who was not the nominee but a member of the committee. Questioning Kavanaugh on the topic of abortion, then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris asked, “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?”
“I’m not — I’m not thinking of any right now, senator,” Kavanaugh responded, stammering a bit.
Perhaps Harris was trying to do what Blackburn later tried to do in Jackson’s hearing — trip up a nominee she disapproved of in the hopes of scoring political points.
Or perhaps Harris simply knew what Jackson later seemed to know, that the act of being a woman often has less to do with biology than it has to do with how you move through the world and what you see and worry about on the way. How people treat you. The respect you are afforded or denied. The knowledge you are assumed to have or lack. The laws that are permitted to regulate the most intimate parts of your body.
To some people, the definition of being a woman may feel immutable and fixed, limited only to genetic makeup or the reproductive organs we have at birth. Others of us are reminded of our womanhood when we step out into the world each day and offer ourselves for judgment.
Later in the hearings, Cruz returned to the task of trying to get Jackson to define a woman. “I think you’re the only Supreme Court nominee in history who has been unable to answer the question,” he said — as if defining gender was part of some centuries-old Supreme Court application form.
The judge again declined to answer the question in biological terms. Instead, she answered truthfully: “I know that I am a woman,” she said. And any woman watching her would have known it, too.