If you’ve ever caught an episode of Judge Judy — and chances are you have, since it’s the number one daytime show in America — you’d be surprised to discover what Judy is like off the bench. The fast-talking, wise-cracking, no-nonsense TV judge is quite a different person from the poised and elegantly pant-suited woman who sat, carefully choosing her words, on the set of Megyn Kelly Today last Tuesday. Both of Judy’s personae are formidable, albeit in different ways, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that Judge Judy Sheindlin is the highest paid television personality — male or female — in all of television. But what may be surprising to some is that she got there without subscribing to feminist values.
“I’m really not a feminist,” Judge Judy told Kelly. “I’m an individualist. I think that individuals each have within themselves the capacity to be the hero of their own story.” This is a sentiment which the leaders of the feminist movement would probably have embraced when Judge Judy was coming of age in the 1960s. In The Feminine Mystique, for example, which was written in 1963, Betty Friedan wrote: “A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she ‘adjust’ to prejudice and discrimination.” In other words, a woman is an individual, just as a man is, and ought not to be treated as different or special simply because of her sex.
When Judge Judy says that she is not a feminist, it is clear that she is referring to the modern definition of feminism — the feminism that has, as she puts it, made it so that “men and women can’t interact naturally with each other anymore.” Because, once you learn Judge Judy’s story, you can’t help but feel that she is a feminist in the original sense of the word.
When Kelly asked Judge Judy how it felt to be the only woman in her law school class of 126 students, the judge responded that she “loved it” and “thought it was perfect.” She doesn’t go on to explain why. But she does recount a time when a professor asked her: “Why are you taking the seat of a guy who’s going to need this job to make a living?” So I think it’s fair to infer that Judge Judy loved being the only woman in her class because it meant that there was at least one woman. That she had made it into an historically male domain, on the strength of her intellect alone, and that’s how she knew she belonged there.
“I didn’t do it through any organization and I think it takes away from your own self-worth if you say I did it based on the work of a larger group,” said Judge Judy of becoming a judge. The fact that she knows that she wasn’t accepted to law school, or offered a job, or given a judgeship because she was a woman means that she knows that her own hard work, determination, and talent got her where she is today. “Whatever you want to be you can be the best at it, be the most recognized in that profession or vocation, that makes you the hero of your story,” she explains. This was the original message of feminism.
When asked what she thinks of the #MeToo movement, Judge Judy responded that she thinks it is an “important movement and I don’t think it should be abused.” She was referring — albeit opaquely — to the myriad behaviors that have come to be associated with #MeToo that don’t actually constitute sexual harassment and have muddied the waters, delegitimizing the experiences of actual abuse victims. Judge Judy worries that #MeToo, in its current state, could “infect the workplaces” such that men don’t feel comfortable talking and working with women at all.
Listening to Judge Judy, you can’t help but be reminded of how far feminism has strayed from its original goals. Here is a woman who came of age in a time when doors really were closed to women. She decided she wanted to enter a profession dominated by men and, instead of complaining about the patriarchy or flaunting her oppression, she just went ahead and did it. Because she believed in her own “self-worth” and her own ability to be “indispensable.” More women today could take a page out of Judge Judy’s book.