Mama Justice

John Edwards. Bill Clinton. Mark Sanford. Most recently, Mark Souder. This is not just a list of men who cheat, but a list of politicians whose family lives deeply affected or ended their careers. Personal lives and personalities are integral to public perceptions of candidates: do constituents want a candidate who takes her kids to church, who coaches her son’s baseball team, who takes his family out for ice cream (and magically, somehow, cameras happen to record it all)? What about candidates that can’t coach their daughter’s volleyball team or their son’s debate team… because they don’t have sons or daughters?

Lisa Belkin’s NYT piece about Obama’s nomination of two women to the Supreme Court highlights the interesting coincidence that neither Justice Sotomayór nor Nominee Elena Kagan are mothers. Coincidence is my term; Belkin finds significance in the previous generation of female Justices being Mamas and Sotomayór (55) and Kagan (50) as All the Single Ladies.

Sotomayór, who is 55, and Kagan, who is 50, have women like O’Connor and Ginsburg to thank for the open doors that have greeted them nearly their entire lives. They were raised in an era when the words “women” and “career” were used regularly in the same sentence, and when a teenage Kagan could pose in judicial robes in her high-school yearbook, because such a dream was possible. They both went to Princeton, a school that did not admit women when the first two women on the court were in college (and where I overlapped briefly with Kagan on the staff of the college newspaper). By the time they were in or just out of law school (Kagan at Harvard and Sotomayór at Yale), O’Connor was already a member of the Supreme Court, and women were sought after for prestigious law positions.

But as women’s paths ascended, they also narrowed. 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.

As Belkin points out, this dilemma is unique to women. Families make male candidates seem stable; it can make female candidates seem distracted or misguided (remember those calls for Palin to “take care of her kids”?). Paradoxically, women without children or families receive criticism from the right and the left for their failure to conform to what Mary Vavrus calls the “new momism,” a media tendency to make motherhood the central and only important aspect of women’s lives. Either way, we’re still “Judging Women,” the title of Belkin’s piece.

Though this dilemma is a result of learned patterns of child rearing and family constellations, it is very real for women of my generation (and of course, has been and will be for years to come). Family and career decisions are tougher than ever, when college graduates aren’t getting jobs, experienced professionals are losing the ones they worked hard to get, and the looming deficit likely means more cuts to social programs in the coming years. For some, Kagan’s choice to remain childless hurts her credibility. Others, like Belkin, think she didn’t have much of a choice if she wanted to reach the highest court in the nation by age 50.

As coverage of Kagan’s nomination demonstrates, family life matters in politics. I’m simply relieved that no questionable “news” sources will be offering a calendar of her extramarital exploits.

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