Beyond their opinions in a court of law, the professional stories and character of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first two women to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, teach us important lessons in the court of life. Their careers help us to understand our own unwitting biases, and how we can deal more productively with our differences.
When they graduated from law school in the 1950s at the top of their class at prestigious law schools (Stanford University and Columbia University), no one would hire them. Who were those who declined even to consider hiring these two obviously brilliant women? Lawyers, as it turned out, who were supposedly discerners of intellect, work ethic and talent. (Liberals and conservatives, by the way.)
The obvious talent of women was hidden to the profession, my own profession, for so long not by what it could see visually by standard objective measures of talent, but by what it could not see internally because of tradition, a slavish adherence to the past, and other limitations. But my profession’s failure to see fully the value of who can be a good lawyer shows us the power of the proverbial log in our collective eye. The necessary talents of women were hidden by, well, prejudice. Benign prejudice, perhaps, but limiting prejudice all the while.
These two justices, nominated by presidents of different political parties, were lawyers of immense talent, and their careers and their court opinions, in time, changed people’s opinions about women. They let their talent tell their stories to help overcome the harsh and unfounded bias about women. I doubt anyone would suggest now that women are not qualified to become good lawyers. Today, at the time of the passing of Justice Ginsburg, over half the students in law school are women, in part because of these two trailblazing women.
Bias, habit, prejudice, and more, however benignly held, often simply cannot be seen. Trusting our instinct, therefore, that we above all others are not prejudiced or biased often is plainly wrong. Just remember all those members of a supposedly learned profession, nearly all of whom, I am sure, did not think THEY were wrongly biased. If it can affect a learned profession to get it wrong about more than half of the population, we better understand its power over people.
So be wary of our own opinions, however benignly formed, because they can be wrong. And, our notion of thinking we are superior to those “others” who are “prejudiced” or “biased” is wrong, too. Let’s not get on our high horse. Speaking for my own profession, we are batting 0 for 1 on this one.
The other career opinion which contains such a valuable lesson is that one of RBG’s best friends, Justice Scalia, had views about most legal issues which were the polar opposite of hers.
RBG, Justice Scalia, and SDO, too, did what most discerning people should do: find the areas with your friends and co-workers on which you agree and focus on them. In RBG and Justice Scalia’s case, it was a love of opera. On the divisive issues, we should, as RBG’s mother told her, “go deaf.” Anybody who has been happily married for any length of time knows this rule well. Why we so often focus on our differences seems to be a bad decision.
Here is what I have learned from the first two women justices ever to serve on the US Supreme Court: I am going to try to do much better about my closely held opinions. If brilliant lawyers of all stripes can get their bias so terribly wrong for generations, I think I will put my personal high horse away, too. I hate to admit it, but it’s true: Some of my strongly held opinions just may be wrong.
And I am going to look for the opinions of others, even those of my most vociferously different friends, on which we can agree. And “go deaf” on the others. If it takes a while, I am going to do my best to persevere like SDO and RBG.
Let’s all try to be on the lookout for the value of removing the proverbial log of bias, however benignly formed, in our eye, to “go deaf” when we need to, and to recognize we could be wrong in some of our opinions.
I am thinking there is similar guidance on these issues in our respective books of faith.