Is 'careerism' the new 'empathy'?

Elena Kagan's single-minded ambition comes in for criticism in a way that John Roberts' didn't

May 17, 2010|By Susan Reimer

It is hard not to notice that the ascension of women to the highest ranks of power brings out the most bizarre commentary on their character and qualifications, as if pants suits and piano playing had anything to do with anything.

In the case of Elena Kagan, nominated by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court, we are hearing about her "careerism." Her straight-to-the-top resume is apparently evidence of cold-blooded ambition, while the same quick march to success was considered evidence of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s brilliance.

The fact that she has written so little on legal matters supposedly points to the fact that she has been carefully positioning herself for this moment since high school and wanted no papers out there that a senator could rattle at her during a confirmation hearing.

In puts me in mind of Princess Diana, whose most outstanding qualification to be wife of the future king of England was said to be her virginity.

Anyway, Ms. Kagan's "careerism" is starting to sound like Justice Sonia Sotomayor's "empathy": vaguely negative.

I am embarrassed to say that I never knew Justice Antonin Scalia had nine children, nor do I consider it a reason to be suspicious of his motives on the high court. Heaven knows there are plenty of other reasons.

But there is concern that the appointment of two childless justices in Ms. Kagan and Justice Sotomayor — and the inevitable departure of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — will leave the court without perhaps the most broad and compelling perspective on American life: that of a mother.

Doesn't all of this make you long for the days when prospective justices were simply tagged as "activist"?

Justice Sotomayor is divorced, but Ms. Kagan has never married and commentators, chief among them conservative Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, are saying that it is legitimate to ask Ms. Kagan if she is a lesbian, and that she should address it herself instead of sending college roomies to the microphone to tell dorm anecdotes.

I absolutely can't get my head around that kind of question in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, but I suppose it is better than asking her if she was infertile, or if she made a decision never to have children, because you know how we feel about women who don't want to be mothers: They are unnatural.

It has been 50 years since the Pill gave women control over reproduction, and now some in the blogosphere make it sound as though seizing that control represents a character flaw.

There is certainly precedent for mothers making it to the top. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had three daughters, and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had three sons. Both took time off to raise their children, and only began their careers in earnest in their late 30s. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised five children before being elected to Congress in her late 40s.

Even Hillary Clinton, who only had one child, essentially waited until Chelsea was grown to make her big career move.

But part of the appeal of Ms. Kagan and Justice Sotomayor to President Obama is their relative youth — both in their 50s — and the fact that they can influence the court for many years.

There is another troublesome issue with the childless status of Ms. Kagan and Justice Sotomayor, and it is the message their ascension sends to our daughters: a message that might, in fact, be true.

You can't have it all. At least, not all at the same time.

Susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/susanreimer

Editor's note: Early versions of this article indicated, incorrectly, that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter in her job discrimination case. The Sun regrets the error.

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