What Sonia Sotomayor Told a 10-Year-Old Girl

A report by Jorge Ramos for The New York Times.

Reflecting on the words of a Supreme Court justice and women’s path to political equality.

Last February, before social distancing became a reality for us all, I was able to interview Justice Sonia Sotomayor for my “Contrapoder” podcast. Among our small audience was Sophie McLoud, 10. The girl had a question for Justice Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court justice in American history. “Do you think a girl like me could become president of the United States?” Sophie asked. I’ll share the amazing answer that Justice Sotomayor gave Sophie later. For now, let’s focus on the latest news.

In the next few days, Joe Biden, the former vice president and now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is expected to announce his running mate. The possibility that a Black woman may fill the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket for the first time ever adds to the excitement, especially since that woman could plausibly become president of the United States.

Hopes for a woman to hold one of the two highest offices of the executive branch have been long held. I still remember when, in 1984 in Los Angeles, I interviewed Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential nominee of a major political party. On that occasion we took a picture together; in it, she held her fist high.

Ms. Ferraro and then-Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale lost that election to Ronald Reagan. But I remember her as a warrior.

Against the background of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential race, it is hard to understand how one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world has never elected a woman to the White House. Other countries in the Western Hemisphere — Nicaragua, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica — have had women as presidents. Not the United States.

Although women serve in top government positions, as is the case with the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, they occupy only 101, or 23 percent, of voting seats in the House. On a global scale, the country ranks 83rd in terms of female representation in national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Geneva-based international organization of parliaments.

So what can we do to achieve political equality? “You need laws and you need structures that lead the way to gender equality,” said Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, the second-youngest head of government in the world, in a CNN interview. “It just doesn’t happen by itself.” In Finland, for example, the law requires that the proportion of men and women serving in certain governmental, municipal and intermunicipal bodies be equal to at least 40 percent for both groups.

In the United States we don’t have such a law, but finally adopting the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced in Congress in 1923, could go a long way toward solving our problems. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” the proposed amendment states, in a simple and clear fashion. Could a new Congress in 2021 help remove the legal hurdles that have stood on the way of the E.R.A.’s ratification for nearly a century?

On that note, let’s go back to my interview with Justice Sotomayor, which took place earlier this year in Miami. She had just published “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You,” a children’s book on how differences make people stronger. We talked about the experiences that inspired her writing, her struggles with diabetes and how to confront our fears.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talked to children during an event promoting her children’s book in Decatur, Ga., last year.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talked to children during an event promoting her children’s book in Decatur, Ga., last year.

“When I was nominated to the Supreme Court I was really scared,” Justice Sotomayor told me in Spanish. “This is a huge job. But who lives life free of fear? I have often told myself, ‘I don’t want to do this job.’” I wasn’t sure I could get it right. And I was very, very close to saying no to the president of the United States. But some friends heard that I was having second thoughts, and one of them told me: ‘Hey, Sonia, stop thinking about you. This is not about you. This is about all those little girls who will see you in that role.’”

Girls like 10-year-old Sophie, who was listening intently. At the end of the interview, as the adults looked on, she approached Justice Sotomayor to ask if she, a Latina, could one day be president of the United States. Justice Sotomayor hugged her and replied, “Yes, yes.” She then went on to give the child a true life lesson.

“First of all, a girl like you should always dream big,” Justice Sotomayor told Sophie.

“Second, never let anyone say that you can’t do it. And the minute they say that, you should do as I have done myself and say: ‘You are telling me I can’t do it? Well, I’ll show you I can.’

“Third, you have to study, study and study. That’s the only way you can achieve what you want in life. Education is the key to the future.

“And fourth, you have to work very hard. In life no one will give you anything for free. You must earn every single thing in this life. It is by studying and working hard that you will become president of the United States.”

Before saying goodbye, Justice Sotomayor hugged Sophie once again. “I hope to be alive when you become president,” the justice said, before expressing her wish to be the one to administer the oath of office to her.

I hope to be there for that occasion. But for that to happen, good intentions and hard work won’t be enough. I get why the idea of quotas isn’t very popular in the United States, a country that takes pride in presenting itself as a meritocracy. But the reality is that if we don’t set gender quotas the way Finland did, putting an end to prejudice and current inequalities will be hard. We need a sense of urgency and new rules that reflect our outrage.

Latina women face a double burden. That’s why when a Latina like Justice Sotomayor reaches one of the most important institutional positions in the country, when young dreamers achieve changes in the laws and when there is another new Hispanic senator or governor, they open the way for those who come after them.

Sophie may someday be the first Latina president of the United States; I don’t doubt it. But before that happens, many other girls like her will need to pave the way. And like Ms. Marin said, “It just doesn’t happen by itself.”

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