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Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and what it means to be "the only" woman

Sonia Sotomayor has just been confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice! Wow. Just, wow.

This is one of those rare, historical and transformational “firsts.” Earlier, Judith wrote an incredibly moving post about “firsts” and what it means to be able to see someone of your own heritage achieve greatness. Sotomayor’s confirmation is a symbolic beginning for Latina women all over America. It also marks an important end (thank goodness) to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s run as the only woman on the Supreme Court.

In a July interview in the New York Times Magazine (which Judith discussed here), Justice Ginsburg said: “I feel great that I don’t have to be the lone woman around this place.” Her comment instantly made me think of my own experiences as a “lone woman,” or a “lone Jew.”

Growing up, I was the only Jewish kid in my class. As a result, I felt pressure to be the self-appointed Ambassador of the Tribe of Israel. It was a daunting responsibility to take on, especially considering my limited knowledge of Judaism. Putting myself in that role was also personally limiting. If I was “a representative,” then everything I did or said became representative of “what Jews do” or “what Jews think.” Needless to say, my ambassadorship was an epic failure. It’s idiotic to believe that one person could ever represent an entire religion or ethnic group. “Being representative” is an unfair burden to bear, and there should never be a need to place that burden on one’s self.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has obviously been dealing with this burden for a while. Describing her time as the only woman on the Supreme Court, she said, “It’s almost like being back in law school in 1956, when there were 9 of us in a class of over 500, so that meant most sections had just 2 women, and you felt that every eye was on you. Every time you went to answer a question, you were answering for your entire sex. It may not have been true, but certainly you felt that way.”

It may seem trivial, but my year-long experience as the only woman in my college comedy troupe made me feel the same way. I quickly picked up on the “old boys club” mentality in comedy, especially improv and sketch comedy. Men could play any role in any scene – even the women’s roles. Women, on the other hand, were usually expected to play “the woman,” and “the woman” was rarely a central character in the scene. Limiting the roles for women that way only serves to perpetuate the ridiculous notion that men are somehow funnier than women.

I recently watched the JWA produced film Making Trouble and was blown away by the stories of trailblazing comedians such as Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, and Wendy Wasserstein. I was also particularly struck by the observations of comedians Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Corey Kahaney, and Jessica Kirson about the barriers still faced by women in comedy today.

I am proud to report that my old improv troupe now has more women than men, but that is pretty unique. Most improv and sketch groups are still male-centric. This is absurd. Any group or organization with a “token” woman projects a skewed image of reality; the actual reality being that over 50% of human beings are, in fact, women! Justice Ginsburg said, “My basic concern about being all alone was the public got the wrong perception of the court. It just doesn’t look right in the year 2009.” She is absolutely right.

As I sit in awe of Sotomayor and this historic moment, I am reminded of how cumbersome and limiting it is to be “the only" anyone in any situation. I raise my glass (or coffee cup) to Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, and hope that the women of tomorrow will never experience the burden of being “the only.”

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and what it means to be "the only" woman." 6 August 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 17, 2018) <>.


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