Knowledge Is No Longer Power

Knowledge is no longer power

As the Senate floor is currently a battleground for Judge Gorsuch’s nomination, I struggle with the inevitable thought of the conservative court we will soon live with. This past semester I took a Political Science class entitled, “Gender and Law”. As I judged a book by its cover, I excitedly assumed that in the Fall of 2016, this class would touch on issues such as transgender bathrooms and conjecture a world in which a female served as the President of the United States. However, I was mistaken. In reality, this demanding seminar of twenty students focused on case law regarding contemporary disputes in the realms of gender equality in marriage, family, the workplace, rape and sexual violence, which all reveal a gender order that is not only influenced by courts but produced by courts as well. Such precedents formed in the courts opened my eyes, challenged my brain and broke my heart.

By the end of the semester I learned in more depth what the late Justice Scalia’s court looked like: one driven by an ideology of formal equality, which functions to permit power-holders to operate. Let’s take Wal-Mart v. Dukes (2011) for example. A case in which the Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision to certify a class action suit in which the plaintiff class of 1.6 million women who were currently or had previously been employed by Wal-Mart. The plaintiffs alleged gender discrimination in pay and promotion policies and practices in Wal-Mart stores. Without getting too technical I can quickly explain the decision made by the Supreme Court majority under Justice Scalia, which operated under a formal definition of discrimination. The majority opinion read that because Wal-Mart did not have a formal policy that guided hiring and promotion decisions, but instead left them to the discretion of managers, nor did they have a formal policy to discriminate against female potential and current employees, the Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart due to the fact that the plaintiffs did not provide enough in common to constitute a class. In other words, statistical evidence of hiring discrepancies, testimonials from 120 women, and further evidence was not enough for the Court’s majority.

Francis Bacon’s “Knowledge is power” claim has always struck a chord with me as I come from a family who stresses the importance of education in being successful. Yet after diving deep into current case law that has been decided upon by our conservative judicial system, that belief has completely broken down. This construction maintains a language of white privilege and a power structure that is difficult to disrupt. Gender difference is socially constructed and normalized to maintain gendered jobs, gendered sexual practices, gendered power in marriages and families, all of which produce women to be subordinates to men in the gender order.

When The Washington Post and others speculate that Justice Gorsuch could be the most conservative on the bench, I get shivers up and down my spine. Conservative ideology in which power is protected, where does knowledge come in? When it’s made absolutely obvious that women were paid less through statistical data on the national, regional, local store level of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. but the highest court in the country refused to acknowledge it, we have a problem. Knowledge and acknowledgement of the problem did not shift the holder of power in this setting. Because the stores had no formal policy of discrimination hiring and promoting practices, Wal-Mart left the case unscathed, whereas the roughly 90,000 women who work for the company continued to experience a salary gap.