Thomas and women

Linda Cotton

August 05, 1991|By Linda Cotton

PAM TALKIN says Clarence Thomas is a thoughtful man. Open-minded. Sensitive. Smart. And she thinks he's getting a bum rap, particularly from women's groups like NOW and the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Talkin, a self-proclaimed "pro-choice Democrat" who was the Supreme Court nominee's chief of staff at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, decided two weeks ago that the female friends of Clarence Thomas ought to do something. What emerged is an oxymoron called "Women for Judge Thomas."

Thomas' record on women's issues has, admittedly, been obscured by the more obvious concern with race-related issues. Nonetheless, it is cause for serious concern.

Last week, the Women's Legal Defense Fund laid it all out in a scathing 75-page report titled, "Endangered Liberties: What .

Judge Clarence Thomas' Record Portends for Women." It found that the EEOC failed to ban employment practices that excluded women of child-bearing age from certain high-paying jobs when Thomas headed the agency, and that settlements in discrimination cases, including sex discrimination cases, dropped during his tenure, too. It also found the number of equal pay cases, which frequently involve women, fell from 50 to seven while Thomas headed the commission and that under Thomas, the EEOC did little in the area of equal employment opportunity law.

The report also points to Thomas' belief in "natural law" -- a set of principles set out by a higher power which supersede the Constitution -- as a omen for women. "Higher" moral principles are always subjective and at the Supreme Court level, the report notes, their use has historically limited women's opportunities. In 1873, relying on natural law, the court denied a woman a license to practice law, noting "the paramount destiny and mission of woman is to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother." In 1908 the court upheld a state law that restricted the number of hours women could work on similar grounds, arguing that "healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring."

Certainly Thomas' praise for an article that called the Roe decision a "conjured right" -- and called for constitutional protection of the "inalienable right to life" of the fetus -- indicates that the natural rights argument might give him sufficient reason to overturn the ruling.

Traditional women's groups are worried. But the administration is attempting to cast Thomas' political propensities in a different light. It is plugging him as the consummate boot-strapper who proves anyone with a lick of determination can make it without the intrusion of activist government. And Thomas has been a willing participant.

He even went so far as to use his sister's plight as a damming indictment of liberal domestic policy. When she was on welfare, Thomas told a group of black conservatives: "She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That's how dependent she is. What's worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too."

Thomas didn't tell the other part of the story, though. That his father deserted the family, and that his mother picked crabs at 5 cents a pound to support three kids. That when their house burned down, the mother sent Clarence and his brother to Savannah to live with their grandfather -- an independent businessman. And that their sister, Emma Mae, stayed home and lived with her mother and an aunt.

Emma later got married and had three children. But her husband left, too -- skipping the state to avoid child support payments. Emma worked two minimum wage jobs to support her children, and her aunt cared for the kids. Then the aunt had a stroke and Emma had to quit work to take care of her. This was when she applied for welfare. After the aunt died, Emma went back to work. Today, with little education or opportunity, she struggles to get by as a cook.

Thomas, however, chanting the conservative self-help mantra, has never given so much as a nod to the fact that had there been a system of child support enforcement, affordable day care, health care or long-term care, Emma -- and countless other women -- might not have ended up on the welfare rolls.

"Women for Thomas," knows all this. But it is standing by its man nonetheless. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, a vociferous member bTC and a pro-choice advocate, says she sees no evidence of problems for women if Thomas is confirmed. "I just want people on the court who are bright and have a breadth of understanding of the human condition."

That's an admirable goal. But the fact that Thomas grew up black in a mean and segregated South is not, alone, evidence that he embodies those qualities. The real question is whether Thomas' life experiences have given him a moral and political dimension different from that of a court dominated by privilege and power. The evidence so far indicates that they haven't.

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