It’s not that I hate Abby Cadabby. She just kind of – bugs me.
I know I’m venturing out onto thin ice here, being critical of a Muppet. I love the Muppets. As a kid, I watched Sesame Street daily (followed by Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and 3-2-1 Contact! with the Bloodhound Gang) while my Mom cooked dinner. Every weekend, the whole family gathered ’round for the Muppet Show. I saw all of the Muppet Movies in the theater. My kids now love the Muppets. Still, in spite of my overall love for the Muppets, there’s something about Abby . . .
Those of you who last watched Sesame Street prior to 2006 may not be familiar with her. She was introduced with much fanfare that year. You see, Abby is – wait for it – a GIRL Muppet. Yes, a bona fide girl Muppet. How do I know she’s a girl? Well, she is purple, pink and sparkly, for one. She also carries a sparkly magic wand topped with a pom-pon, and sports a silvery pair of wings. She has a high-pitched squeaky voice, and bounces a lot. Although she is a Fairy Godmother in training, she reminds me more of the quintessential blonde cheerleader. Clearly, a GIRL.
It’s not that I worship Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She’s just kind of – awesome.
I know I’m venturing out onto thin ice here with folks who see her as nothing more than another Latina who, but for winning the double affirmative-action lottery, should have been subjected to a life of cleaning hotels. (Being born both a Peurto Rican and a woman – don’t some folks have all the luck? Wink, wink.)
Those of you who first heard of Sonia Sotomayor at the time of her nomination to the US Supreme Court in 2009 may not be familiar with the incredible odds she had to overcome to get where she is today: growing up in the projects; being born to uneducated immigrant parents; losing her dad at the tender age of nine. She nonetheless graduated as valedictorian of her high-school class, graduated from Princeton and then Yale Law School, worked as a prosecutor, made partner in only four years at a firm where she focused on corporate litigation, and then was nominated as a Federal District Court judge by a Republican president. Clearly, a smart, focused, hard-working woman.
Abby Cadabby and Sonia Sotomayor – weird combination, huh? Well, imagine my surprise when they appeared together on Sesame Street! It’s a short clip, where Justice Sotomayor talks to Abby about careers. [View the clip here.] It’s generally sweet and uplifting. Justice Sotomayor is wearing her black robe with the white ruffle at the neck, and Abby is in her usual girly-girl attire. When Abby tells the Justice that she wants to be a princess, the Justice kindly explains that while being a princess is certainly fun, it is not a career. A career is something that you must work toward over a long period of time. Justice Sotomayor explains that there are all sorts of careers – doctor, lawyers, teacher and scientist, for example. Then, predictably, Abby decides she wants to be a Supreme Court Justice, just like Justice Sotomayor.
This lawyer-mom loved the clip, and its message to our daughters. Initially. The message to many girls, particularly those growing up in poverty, is a great one. You can be more than a princess. If you work hard, you can have a career. Even you – a Latina from the projects – can become a Supreme Court Justice.
So what’s my issue? The segment commits the all-too-common sin of omission. Women of my generation (well, women from predominantly white, educated families) were the first girls to grow up with the expectation that we could become doctors, lawyers and engineers. We were told we could be whatever we wanted to be. So we did. Then we had kids – and were blindsided. Yes, being a woman was no longer an impediment to becoming whatever we wanted to be – as long as we wanted to be our careers. Women were treated equally to men, as long as we became man-like in relation to our home-lives. As soon as we showed signs of our female-ness – such as becoming mothers – all bets were off.
So while Justice Sotomayor tows the 1970s feminist line by telling Abby she could be whatever she wanted to be, the Justice forgot to mention what she isn’t – a mom.
I’m not trying to pick on Sotomayor, or denounce her for not being a mother. I firmly believe that women can – and do – lead happy, fulfilling lives without becoming mothers. For all I know, Justice Sotomayor wanted to be a mother, regrets not being a mother, but never found what she felt to be the right opportunity. That is neither here, nor there. What is of concern to me is the general lack of candor toward the tribunal – that tribunal being our daughters, who will one day judge whether we provided them with adequate preparation for the future.
In the 1970s, I believe the feminist movement thought that society would evolve to accommodate women’s needs as they entered previously male dominated careers. Today, we know that hasn’t been the case – particularly for mother lawyers. (I won’t bore you with studies and statistics. They’re out there.) Knowing what we do, we now have a responsibility toward the tribunal, as well - to talk about barriers to mothers in the work-place, and to change those barriers where we are able.
What does all this mean for Justice Sotomayor and dear, saccharine sweet Abby? I’m not exactly sure. Abby is at the age where her Mommy is the most important person in her young life. When she visits Sesame Street, she often calls, or is called by, her Mommy. Like most little girls, she assumes she’ll be a Mommy one day. She wants to be a Mommy one day. I can imagine the shock and confusion as she looks up and says, “Justice Sotomayor isn’t a Mommy?” I can also imagine the resigned nature with which the Justice looks down, and says, “No, Abby, I am not.” I long for the day when Abby asks, “Can I be a Supreme Court Justice and a Mommy?” and a Supreme Court Justice looks down with a smile and says, “Of course, Abby!”
Maybe I’ve lost some of my awe for Justice Sotomayor – it’s much easier to grow up in the projects, focus and school and career if you are not simultaneously pursuing motherhood. And maybe, just maybe, my heart is beginning to soften toward Abby – that pink and purple, bouncing, sparkling, little bundle – of innocence and hope.
B.N.: The fact that the two women appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court prior to Sotomayor were mothers has not been lost on the author. Sandra Day O’Connor ran a small law practice with a partner while her children were young, from 1957 – 1965. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was in law school when her daughter was born, and spent her career prior to the Supreme Court as a law professor. The most recently appointed woman Justice, Elana Kagan, is also childless.