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People still can't handle women of achievement

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, second from left in the front row, is shown with Hunter College High School classmates in the school’s 1977 yearbook. Kagan, with a robe and gavel, was student council president.

AP Photo/Hunter High School, Ellen Purtell

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, second from left in the front row, is shown with Hunter College High School classmates in the school’s 1977 yearbook. Kagan, with a robe and gavel, was student council president.


Elena Kagan, according to her critics, is insufficiently ordinary to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She's too odd, too exceptional, too little like the rest of us. Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania groused that she's "completely out of touch with the average American."

For some of her critics, Kagan's life of accomplishment smacks of an unseemly ambition, a careerism that's somehow unwholesome: She wanted to be a Supreme Court justice at the age of 17. How dare she?

As if that were not awful enough, she hails from Princeton, Oxford and Yale, those un-average, hoity-toity institutions that just scream smarty-pants. If she had only attended schools that turned out plain folks, like Chief Justice John Roberts (Harvard, Harvard), Justice Antonin Scalia (Georgetown, Harvard) and Justice Anthony Kennedy (Stanford, London School of Economics, Harvard.)

You'd think it would be difficult to turn Kagan's "A" — achievement — into a scarlet letter, but it's still relatively easy to brand an accomplished woman as outside the cultural mainstream, especially if she's never been married. It's disheartening to see that narrow-mindedness take a front row seat in the debate over her qualifications for the nation's highest court.

After all, it's been decades since the start of the modern women's movement — a crusade that has been, first and foremost, about choices. By 1960, as the birth-control pill made its debut, leading feminists were arguing that women could choose whether they wanted marriage, motherhood, careers — or some combination thereof. They could become physicians, astronauts or news anchors just as they could become secretaries, schoolteachers or nurses.

Not every bright and ambitious woman — even those who hope for a seat on the Supreme Court — would choose Kagan's path. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the high court, married and had three sons. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is married and has a son and daughter.

But it's disingenuous to act as if that's "average." In fact, it's extraordinary for a woman to mold a career worthy of the nation's highest court while still fulfilling the demanding roles of wife and mother.

Sonia Sotomayor, divorced and childless, has spoken openly about the difficulties that her workaholic lifestyle presented for her personal life. "I have found it difficult to maintain a relationship while I've pursued my career," she once told an interviewer.

Says Leah Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, "It's incredible what we've asked of our generation of professional women." A mother of two, Sears has written about giving up her plan to become a partner in a major law firm after her young son was suddenly hospitalized for an illness.

"Addison got well. But I got changed," she wrote. She quit the law firm and went to work as a traffic court judge, a job with less demanding hours.

Kagan has chosen a different path, one in which her career has been front and center. She has clerked for the late, great Justice Thurgood Marshall, worked as a lawyer in the Clinton administration and served as the first woman dean of Harvard Law School. She's now the first woman solicitor general of the United States.

Mercifully, she is not called a "spinster." That old term has been retired, along with the irksome notions it represented. (Unfortunately, stereotypical assumptions about unmarried women of a certain age have not been retired. Kagan has been subjected to endless speculation about her sexual orientation.) As a spectacularly accomplished lawyer, she seems quite content with the choices she has made.

Isn't that all we need to know about her personal life?

© 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

People still can't handle women of achievement 05/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 5:35pm]
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