In Conversation with Professor Sally J. Kenney

Politics, Gender, and Intersectionality.    

Appointed in 2010, Professor Sally J. Kenney is the Newcomb College Endowed Chair, Executive Director of the Newcomb Institute, and Professor of Political Science in Tulane University. From 1995 until 2009, she was the Professor of Public Affairs and Law and Director of the Centre on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Prior to this, she held joint appointments in Political Science and Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University, a B.A. and M.A. in politics, Philosophy and Economics from Magdalen College, Oxford, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Iowa.

Professor Kenney has written extensively on the intersection of gender and the law, including examining how courts and judges construct rather than discover gender differences through law, pregnancy-related discrimination, the composition of the European Court of Justice, and has advocated an intersectional nonessentialist approach to the selection of women judges. Professor Kenney has also co-edited books on comparative constitutional law, constitutional dialogues in comparative perspective, and on feminist epistemology, politics and feminist standpoint theories. Currently, her research focus is on rape and women in prison.

Caoimhe Kiernan is a Ph.D. researcher, senior research assistant and assistant lecturer in the Technological University Dublin. Her Ph.D. research is focussed on the impact of women judges on Irish jurisprudence.

Prof. Sally J. Kenney’s new book ‘gender & Justice’

Caoimhe: During your studies, when did you decide to focus your research on gender, politics and law? 

Sally: I had worked on ratification of the Iowa Equal Rights Amendment and the Federal Equal Rights Amendment, and had also worked on a Senate campaign in 1980, but it was really during my time in Oxford that I became not just a feminist, but one who wanted to explore gender.  When I started at Princeton, I did all of my class papers on gender-related issues and created a comprehensive exam field in women and politics.  I never looked back.

Caoimhe: In your book Gender and Justice: Why Women Judges Really Matter, you discuss both essentialist feminist and non-essentialist feminist arguments for the inclusion of more women on all judicial benches. What type of arguments do you believe future scholars will make in relation to female representation in the judiciary?

Sally: No matter what the evidence shows or the theorists argue, many are going to argue from an essentialist position.  It’s very frustrating.  I think the more people know about specific judges and the more people actually explore the evidence, the more they come to question certain simplistic applications of sex as a variable.  One of the reasons I continue to review journal submissions and manuscript proposals to publishers, even though my current work has moved into looking at rape and women in prison, is because I am so frustrated with the lack of imagination of social scientists who keep asking the same questions.

Caoimhe: As with female representation in the judiciary, the representation of minorities in government is drastically underwhelming. Do you think the reasons for this underrepresentation are similar to the reasons for the lack of women in government? 

Sally: Well, yes and no.  We do not want to overstate the similarities of how implicit bias works.  Race, class, sexuality, ability, age, and so on, are all tenacious axes of discrimination and have different features.  We should be curious about similarities and differences but not make assumptions.

Caoimhe: In your recent article for the Connecticut Journal of International Law, you talk about the need for an intersectional approach to be taken when it comes to female representation in the judiciary. Can you explain why you believe intersectionality is so important in research? 

Sally: The idea of intersectionality is that discrimination against Black women, for example, is not just the addition of race and sex discrimination but something qualitatively different.  It is very easy to add men of colour to the bench who can join the old boys club, or white women, without dislodging discrimination.  Sometimes lesbians become honorary men, other times exclusion coalesces around heterosexuality; it can work in different ways in different institutions at different times.  We need to be always asking who is left out.

Caoimhe: Since your work in the 1980’s with the US Congress, do you believe the attitude towards the participation of women in politics has changed? 

Sally: Yes, it has.  Women staffers in Washington, or women elected officials, were a rarity when I started.  But make no mistake, misogyny is deeply rooted in our political institutions.  In some of my more recent work I have written about backlash.  An important backlash narrative is that women have now made it so we no longer need to examine gender discrimination.  I think recent incidents where Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez was called a bitch were instructive, as were the ways Brett Kavanaugh was able to interrupt and be rude to women senators during his confirmation hearings.

Caoimhe: Since completing your undergraduate degree in Iowa in 1979, to your current position in Tulane, how do you think women’s representation in academia has changed in the past forty years?

Sally: We have inched our way along but made few inroads in changing the entrenched boy clubs of privilege.  Sexual harassment and gender devaluation is rampant, even though many of us have managed to climb the ladder.  Individual successes are not the same as institutional change.

Caoimhe: In your book, you mention the lack of female representation at the European Court of Justice. How do you think the Court could improve in relation to female and minority representation? 

Sally: As I argue, women’s representation starts to de-normalize the wielding of power as necessarily male.  It also makes their absence look more problematic.

Caoimhe: You have done a lot of research relating to sexual assaults on college campuses. This has been found to be a problem internationally. A recent Irish survey of 6026 university students has found that just over half of students reported experiencing sexual harassment and 29% of women surveyed had experienced sexual assault during their time in university. Why do you think sexual assault is so prevalent on college campuses internationally? 

Sally: About half as many men on campus are also sexually assaulted, and those at highest risk are LGBTQIA+ students.  The recent book Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus[1] does a good job of explaining how universities provide cover as well as catalyst for predators and also create vulnerabilities.  The broader rape culture and entitlement that Manne documents in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny[2] intersects with the absence of sex education in the United States, and abroad, to create a toxic brew.  Moreover, colleges and universities market themselves as places to party and hook up and create norms around this culture.

Caoimhe: Do you believe that the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States will have an impact on the representation of people of colour (particularly women of colour) in government? 

Sally: I think we are seeing the effects of Black women organizing against voter suppression in Georgia and the Biden administration following Obama in bringing more people of colour to the table.  But the system has so many built-in tailwinds from campaign finance laws to the electoral college.  It’s inspiring to see this level of mobilization but we have to create difficult institutional and structural change in order to see any real progress.

Caoimhe: Do you think COVID-19 will affect the participation of women in government and women in academia? If so, how? 

Sally: I think COVID-19 lays bare all of the pre-existing forms of discrimination, from women having to take more responsibility for cooking at home and home schooling to who is on the front lines of health care, nursing home care, and the meat packing industry.  I think women are feeling especially ground-down by it all and we are seeing a glimmer of awareness of the value of caring labour and how unfairly it is distributed and remunerated.

Many thanks to Professor Kenney for participating in this interview. Her book Gender and Justice: Why Women in the Judiciary Really Matter, was published by Routledge in 2013 and is available to purchase here: Gender and Justice


[1] Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus (W. W. Norton & Company 2020).

[2] Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press 2017).

Leave a Reply