What is a woman, Judge Jackson? We’ll see you in court | CLARENCE PAGE

The U. S. Supreme Court is seen on a sunrise on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Monday, March 21, ...

Of all the questions that ranged from wise to wacky during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court, one sticks out with memorable prominence: What is a woman?

Was Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, reaching for a “gotcha” with that question to President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the high court’s first Black woman justice?

That’s a good question. If you thought it was pretty well settled during your preschool potty training, as I did, you haven’t been paying attention to the moral panic ignited in some quarters about transgender rights.

It includes such roiling controversies as “bathroom bills” to limit bathroom access to the gender one is assigned at birth, and participation by transgender athletes such as Lia Thomas, who recently won a collegiate swimming championship.

In fact, regardless of where one stands on this thorny issue, the increasingly strong possibility that the definition of “woman” under the law might soon reach the Supreme Court is an excellent reason for Jackson to avoid answering the question, which she did.

But that practical consideration didn’t end the matter for Blackburn, who quickly took to Twitter: “This is a simple question that requires a simple answer,” she tweeted. “It’s a major red flag that a Supreme Court nominee backed by the far left refuses to define the word ‘woman.’ ”

“Red flag?” Hardly. Blackburn inadvertently suggested a good answer to her own question when she asked in a mocking tweet, “If Judge Jackson does not know what a woman is, how will she be able to resolve sex discrimination claims or rule on Title IX cases?”

Indeed, the real red flag is the possibility that Jackson, once seated on the high court, would be ethically obligated to recuse herself from participating in cases involving gender rights and any other issue on which she has put herself on the record.

What makes the seemingly “simple question” of gender complicated is its grounding in identity, the labeling of what we think we are versus what others think when they see us.

Legal scholars note that the framers of the Constitution did not mention women, who didn’t win the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. And the legal doctrine of “coverture” in common law allowed women to own property and make contracts until they married, at which point their legal rights were legally absorbed into those of their husbands.

Fortunately we’ve progressed past such sexist attitudes, but not all sexism or the moral panic that identity issues can raise.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings increasingly have become a stage for political theater in the age of television, especially after Democratic senators blocked Judge Robert Bork’s nomination, leading dictionaries to add a new word, “borking,” for the systematic obstruction of a nominee by defamation or vilification.

Nowadays, it appears, everybody gets borked, even Jackson, whose confirmation does not change the court’s current 6-3 dominance by conservatives. She replaces liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring this summer.

Let me give discredit where it is due. Blackburn was not alone in reaching for wild excuses to put on a good show for the cameras, voters and potential campaign donors.

Among other right-wing notables, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas went on a tear about a children’s book called “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi in the library of the elite private school in Washington where she sits on the board. Sens. Blackburn, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri tried to cast Jackson as soft on criminals, especially pedophiles — a word that makes one’s blood boil just to hear it.

But that’s not to say all Republicans have gone off the edges of reality. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska, Republican called out the “jackassery we see around here” of “people mugging” for the cameras.

Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois thanked a “majority” of Republicans, including Sasse, for handling themselves “professionally” and “in the best traditions of the United States Senate.”

Praise from Durbin won’t do Sasse much good in the Grand Old Party’s circles, but he told the truth.

As for what soon-to-be-Justice Jackson really thinks about the “What is a woman” question, her best answer for now might be, as the old saying goes, we’ll see you in court.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.