What’s wrong with Kagan, Mom edition
19 May 2010
I really hoped this one would go away, but of course Lisa Belkin had to join in with a New York Times Magazine piece this week, which in turn seemed to cue Maureen Dowd, who was already all over the gay question. Sometimes it just makes my head hurt really bad.
If we pay attention to the news, there’s lots of things wrong with Elena Kagan, and the media is looking for more every day. So imagine their delight when some journalists started suggesting it’s her lack of children. It’s the perfect argument, for it seems to have no clear partisan, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bent (like most of the others), AND we get to trash her life choices! Anti-feminism activated!
It started with Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast explaining there are two reasons we should appoint women to the Supreme Court (oh, the desire to call this mansplaining): 1) “female justices, on average, will be more sensitive to the problems women face” and possibly those faced by other disadvantaged groups; and 2) they can help alleviate gender bias by being role models. Is that it? I wonder why we need so darn many if those are the only reasons.
His main point was to note that a majority of the women appointed to cabinet positions during the last three presidential administrations were childless; only six of the sixteen women in those positions have had children. If Kagan is appointed, only two of the four female Supreme Court justices in American history will have been mothers — and that’s just not fair.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don’t want kids. Where it’s failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do.
If we want to talk about “failing,” maybe it would help if we remember that of the 111 justices in US history, 106 have been white men, 2 African American, 2 white women, and 1 Latina. Maybe it would help if we had more than 4 women in Obama’s 15-person cabinet. Maybe it would help if people like Beinart, Belkin, and others remembered that simply having more women in positions of power is inspiring to women; not everyone asks first & foremost whether a woman is a mother. A quick note: only 4 of the Supreme Court justices in American history were bachelors, and I can’t find any information on how many were fathers. But we do know that all of the men currently sitting on the Court are fathers. (And look how that’s worked out, sensitivity-wise. Apparently women have special feeling powers!) To complain that Kagan isn’t a mother is to draw attention away from the fact that even now, the Supreme Court really looks nothing like the rest of America. Yes, more women on the Court is a small step in the right direction for women; but let’s not be reductionist about the complicated issues presidents weigh as they make their choices. Obama may have wanted to find a woman this time, but that probably wasn’t the only thing on his mind.
Beinart argues that Obama should have chosen mom Diane Wood instead, and although he probably wouldn’t go as far as Hilary Shenfeld at iVillage that Wood would have brought “some unique ‘mom-spertise’ to the Supreme Court,” he probably should have guessed that this was whither his argument was tending:
With the addition of Wood, a jurist with a mama bear lurking inside, the Supreme Court would have a member who’s lived through the toughest job on earth and came out better for it. She’s wiped away dirt and tears, helped with homework and heartache, made as many decisions as dinners, really listened and really heard. She’s had years of experience settling squabbles and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. She would have come to the job not only with legal smarts, but also the real-world wisdom picked up from the day-in, day-out joys, frustrations and plain hard work of being a mother and raising a family.
Um, what are we talking about again? Oh yeah, whether we should appoint mothers to the court because then the Court will look more like America and inspire women to be mothers and jurists. Lisa Belkin in the New York Times quotes Shenfeld, but avoids the maudlin in order to reiterate Beinart’s argument: we’re sending the wrong message to women by appointing so many childless women to positions of high power. Women learn from these choices that bearing children is risky for career-minded women:
Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayór and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.
That’s just how we childless women operate, you see. We sit down when we’re 10 years old and “choose” to study and work so hard that we will have no lives, ever, because we’re plotting out our paths to seats on the Supreme Court; the people we’ve got to knock out of our way are those super-feeling mommies. When Belkin lays out these “new tradeoffs,” she makes enormous assumptions not just about Sotomayór’s and Kagan’s “choices” (not everyone “chooses” to be childless, stay unmarried, or get divorced, as in Sotomayór’s case), but also about what most Americans admire about female leaders. (And excuse me, but who exactly gets to choose to take “five years off to stay home with your children,” anyway?) This, of course, led to Maureen Dowd’s piece today on the difference between being “single” and “unmarried.”
But my real gripe here is the constant parsing the lives of exceptional women for details that are irrelevant to their nomination — thereby permitting, yet again, women to be treated differently than male candidates for the same job. She’s the wrong kind of woman, these comments tell us. Some women make the wrong kinds of choices, they imply; we should feel sorry for her because she’s unmarried and childless. And it allows everyone to get distracted by the illusion that this is a zero-sum game in which women are fighting it out amongst themselves.