Sotomayor and other "firsts"

Yesterday morning, as I heard the news that Obama would imminently announce Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the Supreme Court, my eyes welled with tears. I thought about the Latino and Latina kids who will grow up knowing that they, too, can serve on the highest bench, and also thought about the older people in the Latino community who undoubtedly feel pride and a sense of communal achievement.

On the one hand, this emotional response shouldn't have surprised me. Not only am I an easy crier, I also work for an institution built, in part, on the belief that "You cannot be what you cannot see." The Jewish Women's Archive tells the stories of Jewish women because if we do not know this half of our heritage, our sense of what is possible - personally and communally - is drastically constricted. By this line of reasoning, firsts such as Sotomayor's nomination (she is both the first woman of color and the first Latino) are transformational, opening new worlds of possibility.

But the truth is that in my day-to-day work, I'm not deeply moved by the "firsts" that we celebrate at the Jewish Women's Archive. Take politics for example: Florence Prag Kahn -- the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress -- was clearly an interesting and complicated woman (she opposed women's suffrage, for example); Madeleine Kunin, the first Jewish woman to serve as a state governor (Vermont) describes her rise to power in eloquent terms; and who could help but love Ruth Bader Ginsburg, tiny and strong, slow-spoken and wise? It's astounding to think that when she graduated from law school, no one would hire her because she was a woman and a Jew... And yet I don't shed tears when I hear that story.

Part of this dynamic, of course, has to do with the fact that today, few doors are closed to Jews. Women... well, there's definitely still a glass ceiling and some pretty harsh sexism (think Hillary, folks), but we know that theoretically those of us with middle class opportunities can aim pretty damn high. As a Jewish parent, I actually tend to think more about how not to lay a trip on my kids so that they think they need to be a Supreme Court Justice rather than how to make sure they know that they can be one if they want to. (I may still be reacting to a conversation I had with my father when I was pregnant, and he suggested that we avoid the name "Ma'ayan" for our daughter because it might be an impediment if she were to run for Congress. I pointed out: a) Barack Obama is (was at the time) a Senator, and b) SHE'S NOT EVEN BORN YET AND YOU ALREADY HAVE HER RUNNING FOR CONGRESS? Give this poor child a break!).

The Jewish "firsts" that move me most these days are actually the ones within the Jewish community: first African American woman rabbi, for example, or first transgender rabbi. These signal a growing desire within the Jewish community to acknowledge our diversity and to be inclusive of the full range of Jewish experience. I'm struck, though, by the irony of what this suggests: that the secular world is no longer where Jews face obstacles. Rather, we put them up for ourselves.

Topics: Civil Service, Law
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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Sotomayor and other "firsts"." 27 May 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 25, 2024) <>.