A new study out of Harvard University finds that “judges with daughters are more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights than ones with only sons.”
The conclusion seems quite straightforward, if not downright obvious, but that the research was even conducted at all is quite groundbreaking. Precedential scholarship on judges’ rulings has focused primarily upon law and ideology as influencers in the decision-making process. Now, researchers are delving into a third category potentially at play: personal experience.
This is, of course, reasonable. As Professor Maya Sen, a political scientist at the University of Rochester and co-conductor of the study, told The New York Times: “Judges aren’t machines. They are human, just like you and me.”
Human judges with a human daughter, it turns out, are 7-9% more likely to vote on the side of feminism than daughterless judges. If a judge only has one child, they are a full 16% more likely to vote in support of women’s rights if that child is female.
While researchers haven’t yet determined exactly why the so-called “daughter effect” is influencing courtrooms, it isn’t hard to imagine dozens of reasons why the parent of a woman, whether she’s fully grown or still a little girl, would be more invested in a gender-equitable world.
In a way, it’s nice to think that empathy could be swaying judges to vote in favor of rights for the women they love.
Mostly, though, this freaks me out.
I’m perturbed because the effect is most dramatic in judges who would usually vote more conservatively. Republicans are driving the results.
These findings remind me of when Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, switched his stance on marriage equality last year after his son came out as gay. The announcement was positively received by those completely maddening people who identify as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” (as if the American political process, be it local, Congressional or Presidential, involves building your own custom-designed robot candidate; as if you can ever truly divorce the social and the fiscal).
It’s easy enough to find oneself related to a woman. There are, in fact, quite a lot of us. But it’s tougher odds for a Republican to be raising a queer child than it is for him to be raising a daughter, regardless of her orientation. How many politicians in office and judges on the bench have raised children who are poor, undocumented, disabled, unemployed, uninsured? Minorities are called minorities for a reason; there are especially few who are connected to historically white and affluent families of political power.
This is not to say that our country’s change-makers – and plain ol’ people in general – can’t be empathetic toward others with whom they don’t share a blood bond. But it does raise questions about politicians’ power to feel for those who do not look or live like them.
Simply because there’s a woman revolving in their personal orbits, some judges who would normally vote more conservatively are giving feminist stances judicial validation. While this is obviously better than the alternative, it still disturbs me to wonder why being parenting a woman makes it easier to empathize with her struggle and legitimize her political worth.
Dear judges: women who are not your daughters are humans, too.
I’m glad that the research is out there. Harvard’s is the first article to consider empathy as a component of judicial decision-making; it will hopefully pave the way for far more research on the relevance of personal experience upon policy.
In the meantime, we can appreciate that Obama has appointed more female judges than any other President, and last week, for the first time in history, the U.S. Senate confirmed two openly gay black judges to the federal bench.
This is a big deal. People’s lived experiences, in no clear terms, shape the way they make decisions. It’s time we start honoring, and exploring, that reality.