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Elizabeth Sherman

Elizabeth Sherman

Assistant professor of American Politics at American University; founder and former director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Their Stories Are Our Stories

Effective leaders skillfully deploy biographical facts that establish rapport with their audiences. President Obama gave us a master class on this by drawing on his unique background to relay the central points in his speech.

In much of the world, personal heritage and family ties provide entrée and establish legitimacy. By referring to the Islamic faith of his father's family and his years living in Indonesia, Obama relayed not only respect, but personal identification with the Muslim world that no other Western leaders can match.

His presence in Cairo communicated the vitality of American democracy and the inherent possibilities for change and renewal in a system based on popular consent. Obama transcended his biography by emphasizing the fundamental, universal rights of all peoples to enjoy political and economic freedom in safety.

Like President Obama, Judge Sonia Sotomayor achieved extraordinary educational and professional distinction. She chose to pursue career goals through law and government that encourage better access for people of color to make an impact.

Judge Sotomayor often claims that her success is due to the encouragement of family, teachers, mentors and colleagues. But she also knows of and participated in the social and political movements of the past fifty years that made her candidacy for the Supreme Court possible.

Regarding her "wise Latina" remark, the women's movement has often emphasized women's "specialness." From Seneca Falls to "a different voice," women have claimed a unique perspective as outsiders socialized to concentrate on the private sphere of home and hearth. Those working for equality and opportunity did more than overturn discriminatory laws and open doors: they altered individual psychology and expanded considerations of the possible.

Beyond the condescending dismissals of "identity politics", Sotomayor's story reflects not only her biography, but our history. It embodies the ideas and ideals of American democracy and the vibrancy of our meritocracy. Like Obama, she inspires us to reflect on her achievements, knowing that her pathways to success were forged by the sacrifices and devotion of millions who insisted that America live up to its promises.

By Elizabeth Sherman

 |  June 10, 2009; 4:06 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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