Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81 spoke to thousands of mostly female audience members on Friday about the court’s impartiality, challenges faced by women in their careers, and memories from their time at Princeton as part of the 2018 “She Roars” conference.
At the talk, which was moved from Robertson Hall to Jadwin Gymnasium to accommodate demand, the justices were greeted by a warm and excited standing ovation.
Ramona Romero, the University’s general counsel, introduced the justices by highlighting their similarities: Both women hail from New York, love baseball, and wrote exceptionally long senior theses for the Department of History.
Heather Gerken ’91, the first female dean of Yale Law School, moderated the talk.
Kagan and Sotomayor spoke to the fundamental importance of impartiality in maintaining the legitimacy of the court.
“Part of the court’s strength and part of its legitimacy is that people don’t think of it as politically divided in the same way as the rest of the government, as somehow being above the fray,” Kagan said, adding, “It’s an incredibly important thing for the court to guard.”
Kagan noted that the court voted unanimously on about half of its cases, explaining that the most controversial cases are the ones that receive the most media attention.
The justices’ discussion of partisanship was particularly timely, given U.S. Court of Appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the intense partisanship that has surrounded his approval process.
Both the justices and the moderator remained silent on Kavanaugh and the allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
The bulk of the talk focused on Sotomayor’s and Kagan’s professional careers and the challenges they faced as women.
“I don’t believe that you can be part of the working world without having a story about being treated differently because you are a woman,” Sotomayor said.
Kagan, the first female dean of Harvard Law School, told a story about a framed collection of uniformly white, male former deans that had hung in her predecessor’s office.
“The first thing I did was take that picture down,” she said.
Both women expressed gratitude for colleagues who supported them throughout their careers.
“There were always men of good will, who understood that equality had to be put into practice,” Sotomayor said. “No matter how hostile of an environment it may seem, you have to look around for those people who will stand with you.”
When asked why they decided to attend the University, neither Sotomayor nor Kagan could remember the exact reason. Being in the third and eighth classes to admit women, respectively, both justices recalled feeling keenly aware of their gender throughout their studies at the University. But each praised the opportunities Princeton granted them, and expressed how thrilled they were to see the thousands of alumnae gathered together before them.
Alumni, students, and administrators alike reported feeling moved by the presentation. Silvia Briones ’95 said the presentation left her “awestruck” and “speechless.”
Joana Li ’17, now a student at NYU Law School, praised the conference as a whole for providing the opportunity to be able to talk to and get advice from other alumnae.
“It’s an amazing event,” she said. “It’s been so great to hear from Princeton women from all different walks of life who are able to share their experiences post-Princeton. They’re incredible.”
Associate Dean of the College Khristina F. Gonzales echoed Li’s appreciation for the gathering of women from so many classes in one place, saying that students could learn a lot from both the Justices on stage and alumni in the audience.
“It was really powerful to hear Justice Sotomayor talk about her experiences as a first gen and low income student here at Princeton,” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to bring together the community of women who are current students, staff, faculty, and alums, and to think about the power we have together.”
Nathaniel Hontz ’21 said the talk was a “once in a lifetime experience.”
“It was interesting to see how much of their character they saw as being formed at Princeton,” Hontz said. “That was fascinating.”
The talk was held in Jadwin Gym at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, as a part of the “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton” conference, the second of its kind meant to celebrate University alumnae.