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The Power of Language

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The majority leader of the California Assembly recently referred to the state's chief justice as "attractive" in a debate over legislation to reduce her oversight of the California court system.

Majority Leader Charles Calderon's remarks (D-Whittier) about Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye were inappropriate at best and worthy of the immediate protest by progressives, members of his own party and women's groups.

His comments, and the reaction to them, illustrate how power and language function in this country.

Calderon said that his bill to decentralize control of California courts was not motivated by Cantil-Sakauye's tenure as the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. "It isn't 'Is she nice?' 'Cause she is. 'Is she smart?' 'Cause she is.' 'Is she attractive?' 'Cause she is.' It isn't about that."

What is it about then? Putting aside the issue of whether the same remarks would have been made about a male chief justice, a ludicrous proposition, as pointed out by one commentator in the Los Angeles Times: (Imagine an Assemblywoman saying of a male chief justice, "My support for this judiciary bill has nothing to do with how nice or how smart he is. It isn't that he isn't handsome.")

The unconscious bias about women Calderon expressed hit a nerve. The same day, State Senator Noreen Evans fired off a letter demanding an apology calling his remarks "degrading" and "inappropriate." She underscored how his comments reinforced the stereotype of women who have value and are judged only due to their appearance instead of their intellect and accomplishments. Similar letters followed from the National Association of Women Judges and California Women Lawyers.

Calderon hardly backed down.

After an initial period of silence, he finally told the LA Times, "I certainly apologize if anybody misunderstood it." Hardly the mea culpa that would have relegated this event to the pantheons of history.

Ironically, conservative bloggers have been almost uniformly in support of Calderon and his statements, taking gleeful pleasure in what they portray as progressives turning on each other. Conservative sites, featuring prominent photos of the Chief Justice, have declared, "[w]ell, yeah, [the Chief Justice] is hot!" among other more lecherous comments, and have chalked this all up to unbridled political correctness. They have accused "feminists" of being jealous when good looking women get attention; they have coined new terms such as "feminuts" and "offendiditis."

All have been as dismissive of Senator Evans' audacity in condemning Calderon's behavior as Calderon's comments were of the chief justice. Comments on these blogs have lamented the "thin-skinned" society we have become where fear of being labeled offensive will infringe on freedom of expression. Some conspiracy theorists have even opined that "the agenda" behind this is to create a side show to detract from the bill's advancement. The consensus on that side is BFD. It's a compliment so live with it!

As for Calderon's own explanation for his comments, he has subsequently said that it's not that he doesn't view women as equals, because he does. It's not that he meant to disrespect the chief justice, because he didn't. It's nothing against her personally, because it isn't. Then why does this sit so uncomfortably in our gut that we have to name it?

"What is missing in this debate is the recognition that people in power sometimes use language that devalues women and people of color," said Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society. "Assemblymember Calderon's comments reveal an unconscious bias towards women based on outmoded stereotypes. Verbalizing his bias is of consequence because it enables others to freely express those same feelings."

When our unconscious bias is unchecked, we often say things that lead to manifestation of actual bias. This is the reason we must name this phenomenon and denounce the careless use of language by those in power, not for the sake of political correctness (the usual accusation for any frank discussion of prejudice in this country) but in order to better understand how bias operates and begin the real work of eradicating it.

The reality is that the trivialization of women results in actual discrimination and, in extreme and unfortunate cases, harassment that too often ends in violence. As the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a national non-profit legal services organization, I hear stories every single day from women who call our toll-free advice and counseling line. The discrimination they report is vast in volume and varied in scope. For instance, women have not achieved equal pay. The pay gap between men and women persists and currently stands at 77 cents for white women, 67 cents for African American women, and 57 cents for Latinas. Pregnancy discrimination is rampant despite laws that prohibit it and results in lost income, jobs, and benefits to which women and families are entitled to. Women are systematically shut out of higher paying professions such as the trades and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The list goes on.

Perhaps most sobering is the overwhelming increase in violence against women and girls in the workplace and at school. The nation was recently shocked by the arrest of now former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel employee. Although the political stature of the perpetrator in that case is unusual, what is sadly not unusual is the prevalence with which women, particularly low-wage, immigrant workers such as the victim in that case, are the victims of sexual assault in the workplace. With few exceptions, the majority of their stories remain hidden from view unless organizations like ERA get involved.

There is a lack of awareness about the plight of low-wage, immigrant and other workers who experience this type of unspeakable violence in the course of trying to make a living. Even when the public does hear about a high-profile case like Strauss-Kahn's, our initial reaction may simply be to shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how we could have prevented it. What we should ask ourselves is this: if the chief justice of the California Supreme Court can be so easily belittled by the careless language of one person in power, regardless of his political party or social identity, is it any wonder that other women suffer worse treatment?

Equal Rights Advocates was founded in 1974 and is a national nonprofit legal organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls. For more information, visit www.equalrights.org.

If you need confidential advice about your rights in the workplace or in school, please call our national, toll-free, advice and counseling line at 1-800-839-4372.