The Supreme Court and Work-Life Balance May 21st, 2010
I am tired. Five for Ten (with a 4-day vacation to New York in the middle) wore me out. Not to mention that in the past couple of weeks my company has heightened its internet security settings, making it more difficult for me to steal away quiet moments of my day, here and there, to escape into the thoughts and words of my favorite bloggers. So I try to catch up on your worlds early in the morning and late at night. And that, too, wears me out.
I tell you this because I was going to take today off. I was going to post some interesting links to tide you over until Monday, wherein I planned to resume my regular thrice-weekly musings on the various and sundry topics that interest me. But then I read this article in the New York Times Magazine by Lisa Belkin and was riveted.
At a glance this seems to be a heyday for women in the law. Provided that Elena Kagan is confirmed for the first time in history the Supreme Court will seat three women. Such unprecedented moments come rarely, and should be celebrated. Or should they? That is the question asked in this article. And I’m thoroughly perplexed by it.
The exception that some people are taking to Kagan’s nomination is that she is not married or a mother (as is also the case with Sotomayor, but was not the case with O’Connor or Ginsberg). Apparently to some it implies that to ascend to the highest heights of her profession (or at least of the legal profession) a woman must sacrifice her opportunity to have a family. Belkin puts it this way:
But as women’s paths ascended, they also narrowed. Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayor 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.
The Daily Beast writer, Peter Beinart even went so far as to pen an entire piece entitled “Put a Mom on the Court” and state within it that he wished that mother and stepmother Diane Wood had been nominated in place of Kagan. While I can concede some merits of this position, I struggle with it nonetheless.
I am not an attorney, a legal scholar, or a politician of any stripe. But I am a smart person with a curious mind and I follow the current events of our government in a reasonable amount of detail. And here’s my beef with the Kagan-isn’t-a-mother naysayers:
It was her choice. For years women didn’t have the choice to pursue career over family. But generations of women fought for the right to do so. Kagan made that decision and for all appearances it has served her well. She should not be punished professionally for having chosen not to have children any more than any other woman should be punished professionally because she did. Can you imagine the backlash that would be going on in this country if the converse had come to pass? What if Kagan – all other qualifications being equal – had been passed over for this opportunity merely because she had a spouse and children in her life? Working mothers everywhere would be in a state of revolt.
Furthermore, it isn’t the job of the Supreme Court to serve as a barometer for work-life balance. It is the job of the Supreme Court to apply the Constitution thoughtfully in cases that aren’t readily decided by existing legislation or case law. That’s it. And that’s plenty! Suggesting that her spot on the bench could be better filled by someone who is a parent because of the message it sends is demeaning to an accomplished and qualified nominee.
I’ll step down off of my soapbox now, before I get too comfortable up there. Moments like this really try my patience. We women have worked so hard for our professional opportunities. To discriminate someone who made the (very personal) choice to avail herself of them completely hits my funny bone.
We women have come a long way, but it’s still not a cakewalk. Women who have careers judge women who decide to stay home. Women who stay home judge women who decide to have careers (at the exclusion or inclusion of a family). The whole point in all these struggles is that we all get to choose. No two of us are alike. We finally get the latitude to pursue lives that suit us. Why on earth should our choices ever be held against us by someone who chose differently? We’re on the same team here. I chose what was right for me. Elena Kagan chose what was right for her. And as long as you chose what was right for you then we’re still in this boat together. Right?