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The mystery of Sonia Sotomayor

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Kathleen Parker
July 15, 2009
— Doubtless thousands of other women’s ears perked up when Sen. Charles Schumer, introducing Sonia Sotomayor at Monday’s confirmation hearing, mentioned the Latina jurist’s girlhood affection for Nancy Drew books.

The smart, plucky girl-detective was a role model for many women who recognized themselves in Nancy—including Hillary Clinton, Oprah, Sandra Day O’Connor and Laura Bush, to name a few.


Add yours truly to the list.


My father introduced to me to Nancy Drew when I was in fifth grade. He and I sat side by side on the living room couch to read the first book together, taking turns reading aloud. Thus began my long love affair with reading, encouraged by the fact that television viewing wasn’t allowed on weekdays and that book reading was the only exemption from hard labor, aka “chores.”


By the end of the school year, I had completed the entire collection, a victory of art over temperament. I often became so excited by plot twists I couldn’t sit still and would run laps through the downstairs rooms until I regained enough calm to focus on another paragraph.


Nancy Drew was a natural fit for me. She and I both were raised primarily by our lawyer-fathers. Both of our mothers had died when we were 3. Favorite titles corresponded to my own experience (the early rumblings of empathy?) and home, names such as “The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion,” “The Hidden Staircase,” “The Secret in the Old Attic.”


We didn’t live in a mansion, but our house was old and spooky—a Spanish colonial revival-style stucco situated among moss-draped oaks, with a tile roof and a curious cupola perched over the living room, a broad front porch with a stone balustrade, and a secret staircase adjacent to my room that led to a cavernous cedar closet in which dwelled an evil spirit. Or so I was convinced.


How clever were the writers of these books, who understood the secret yearnings of little girls in love with mystery and hidden things. Other words sprinkled among the titles were baited fields to the ripe imagination—phantom, ghost, witch, haunted, mysterious, charm. It didn’t hurt that Nancy Drew had a spiffy roadster and could throw on a summer frock faster than you could say “hiya.”


Nancy could do anything, and a generation of girls who lived vicariously through her heroic adventures assumed they could, too. But Nancy didn’t so much inspire as reflect girls’ blossoming self-image and the spirit of the times. Thus, girls as diverse as Oprah, Sotomayor and a certain WASP from down South could see themselves in the same absurdly talented, teenage sleuth.


The importance of this identification with an accomplished member of one’s own sex can’t be overestimated. The same applies to boys as well, but that is a subject for a separate column. Actually, I wrote a book—“Save the Males.” But when Sotomayor and I were girls, there were few girl-oriented books and fewer female professional role models. On my weekly visit to the public library, I checked out as many women’s biographies as I could find, searching for someone with whom I could identify.


These recollections are recounted for the single purpose of illustrating that we are all products of our life experiences. The empathy I feel for motherless children is boundless. My understanding of the world having grown up a minority in an all-male household, feeling outside the mainstream of whole families, is different than those who had both a mother and a father. And though I never requested nor wanted special consideration, my sense of the world as I navigated the testosterone-rich environment of America’s old newsrooms as one of relatively few women is not the same as that of my male counterparts.


If I were a judge, I would bring to the bench all those experiences and the accumulated wisdom derived from them. I do not think that would make me a less-fair or less-objective jurist than the men on either side of me. I am certain, however, that my intellectual makeup does not exist independently of the emotions that helped form me.


As a Latina from a Bronx housing project reared by a single mother, Sotomayor knows things the other justices on the Supreme Court can’t possibly know. She might be the wrong choice for other reasons, but not because she recognizes that the law, properly applied, requires both brains and heart.


If it were otherwise, a robot would do.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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