Welcome to the club, girls

Anna Quindlen

January 28, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

THE children watching the inauguration being replayed on tape grew silent as Maya Angelou began to recite her poem. Then midway through they began to cheer, not for her words but for themselves, as though she were calling the roll:

"So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew, The African, the Native American, the Sioux."

They each cheered the group to which they belonged in the poet's litany. There was even one faint little "yay" after the words "the homeless." In the Brooklyn classroom one girl stood up and read her own poem as though there were a hundred thousand watching her. And the teacher felt it was no accident that, like Ms. Angelou, the girl was black.

Familiarity breeds content. It's why, as I was growing up, the columnist who seized my imagination was not Walter Lippmann but Dorothy Thompson. When Thurgood Marshall's death was announced Sunday, he was remembered for his extraordinary role as a role model. The man who singlehandedly desegregated the Supreme Court took the "im" out of "impossible" for many African-Americans.

"If there's nobody who looks like you, you have the sense that you can't do it," said Roger Wilkins, who grew up amid the leaders of the civil rights movement. "If there's somebody who's something like you, it seems possible."

This is why it infuriates me when public discourse about appointing women to high position makes it sound as if such attempts are somehow window dressing, a pleasant luxury but far from a necessity.

That was one subtext of the Year of the Woman -- Whoops! It's over! Back to Greenwich men time! -- and the source of some of the agitation about the Clinton Cabinet as it took shape. And it will fuel the anger some will feel if the Clinton administration sighs and says now, "Well, we tried a woman and look what happened," as the position of attorney general is filled.

It is ridiculous to suggest that President Clinton's first feint at filling the job ended badly because he confined himself to choosing among women. The preliminary list of candidates, one accomplished lawyer after another, gave the lie to the idea of an impoverished pool.

The elevation of individuals to high position often represents issues and image combined. When Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall was chosen for the Supreme Court in 1967 Floyd McKissick, the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, said it stirred "pride in the breast of every black American."

But when Justice Marshall stepped down in 1991, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, "To laud Thurgood Marshall solely for improving the options of African Americans would be too simplistic a tribute for a person who has touched so many lives."

Women do not stand in high position, in the attorney general's office or newspaper newsrooms or in law firms, only to represent other women, although some of our interests were poorly served before more of us came along. And as anyone who has read the opinions of Justices Brennan and Blackmun knows, white men are quite capable of representing the interests of African-Americans and women.

But that is not the only point. Life magazine last year ran a photograph of 98 women and two men on the steps of the Capitol to make concrete the unequal composition of the Senate in a clever and vivid way. It took some time to find the men in that photograph. They were insignificant.

We are not talking about quotas, bean-counting or special treatment, although sometimes it seems like special treatment for women and minorities to get equal treatment. We are talking about the sense of universal possibility that should be inherent in democracy, the sense a little girl gets now when she sees the official portrait of the Supreme Court and realizes that girls can be justices, too.

Justice Marshall told Carl Rowan several years ago that segregation still existed in America. "Clubs here in this town," he said, "they invite everybody else but me." Maybe that's how that little girl felt, until she saw Maya Angelou -- everybody else but me. "Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you," the poem said.

Welcome to the club.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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