Tuesday, May 11, 2010

That's Right, The Woman Is (Huh!) Smart-er: On The Elena Kagan Nomination

At a certain point you hit an age where you look around you and there are Other People who are reaching the pinnacle of their careers while you -- well, you have a book, some articles, a good job at a snazzy little school and a well-read blog. Of course, the best may be yet to come. But right now I look at Elena Kagan and myself and see the similarities: educated at a single sex school (check!), and among the first generation in at the all-male Ivies (I was class of 1980 at Yale, she was 1981 at Princeton.) From then on our paths seem to have diverged. I labor in semi-obscurity at Zenith, she is shucking a top job in the Obama administration for a series of nasty encounters with the chipmunky Jeff Sessions and the opportunity to change history on the Supreme Court.

I, in contrast, who could have gone to law school with the other smart, ambitious women (which is what the female Dean of my residential college told me to do) will keep my day job writing history while I wait to see if I can monetize my blog or win the Pulitzer Prize. All right, there isn't room at the top for all of us; while some are called to make history we also serve who write the nation's past. Nonetheless I do have a few regrets about roads not taken. Although we women of the 1970s were all hot out of the starting gate, some of us made it to the rail and some of us didn't. I got to tell you, my only conclusion is that Elena Kagan worked harder than I did, earlier than I did. She was a risk-taker, I stuck to what I knew I could do well. And to be brutally frank, Elena probably spent way less time drinking beer and chatting up chicks in lesbian bars, gay discos and ACT-UP demos than I did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Or did she? Did I mention that there was something else Elena and I might have in common? Or so sayeth those who can't stand the sight of an intelligent, successful woman who seems to have done almost nothing wrong beating out a lot of less-deserving men. Despite the fact that she kept her nose to the grindstone and kicked a lot of male butt along the way, what seems to be emerging as the Kagan story is whether she is a lesbian or not.

Is it still the 1970s or what? Smart woman, ambitious, not married, no guy in sight -- she must be a dyke!

Now, I want everyone to be a lesbian -- really I do. I want Phyllis Schlafly to be a lesbian. There are even selected men who I like so much that I think of them as lesbians. For these reasons and more, I would think it was cool if Elena Kagan were a lesbian. If I were not already happily partnered, I would consider sending a message through third-party channels that being the accommodating husband of an Associate Justice on SCOTUS would be exactly my cup of tea. She could make history, I could make cookies for those long, esoteric discussions about the Second Amendment. I would learn to iron, so that every morning from October through July I could press the funny little neck object the female justices wear before I skipped off to the National Archives.

But do we queers need to follow the Christian right's valorization of heterosexuality as a litmus test of good citizenship and insist that all of "us" are inherently progressive and trustworthy? Michael Wolff at Newser says that the question everyone was afraid to ask Sonia Sotomayor will be asked of Kagan because, other than her scholarship and her suspiciously collegial relations with conservative faculty as Dean of Harvard Law School, she has no judicial paper trail. "You can feel it," Wolff writes, "We are just on the verge of articulating our right to know somebody’s sexual point of view." Wolff's only slightly tongue in cheek rationale is this: in the absence of any proof that Kagan will go mano-a -mano with the Court's radical right, having it come out that she is a lesbian would cheer up everyone who is left of center. "For the left, her being gay would be good news, confirming her progressive sensibility," he explains. "While for the right, being gay signifies all the rad-lib expansive-interpretation issues that would surely be spelled out by her judicial opinions, if she had any."

Do we really think that queer people have a "sexual point of view?" Try that one out on J. Edgar Hoover, why don't you? Or Roy Cohn? Or a certain New York City based conservative female expert on education who keeps coming into conflict with other conservatives about gay stuff?

Seriously, only straight people would believe that a candidate for the Supreme Court or any other high office is more trustworthy on progressive issues because s/he is queer: it is such a perfectly reductive example of what counts as politics nowadays. "I'll take one of these, and one of those -- and the court won't be balanced if I don't have one of those....." What strikes me as a little more interesting is what slipped out on The News Hour last night about the sexism internal to the Court. Marcia Greenberger spoke to a situation that many of us are familiar with: that it is sometimes hard for men to tell women apart. "One of the historic things that people used to joke about," she said, "was that, with two women on the court, for a long time, Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Ruth Ginsburg, lawyers used to call them by each other's names and confuse them. They were still tokens. It was still: It's one of the two women. Having more women turns those women justices into justices, and makes them part of the normal routine, that we have male and female justices."

Speaking as someone who has a senior male colleague who repeatedly calls me by the name of another female colleague, even though we have worked together for eighteen years, I say Amen to that, sistuh. But the part I liked best was when regular legal commenter Marcia Coyle pointed out that not only would three women make for a more diverse and representative court, it might make for a smarter court. As Coyle noted, "when you look at his list, what was considered his short list, it was dominated by women. And they are some of the best legal minds in the country. So, I think he was looking for diversity in experience. And, also, I think he was looking for someone who can really do the job."

That's right -- the woman is (huh!) smart-er!
That's right?
That's right!

Harry Belafonte and Julie Andrews, "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" -- although oddly, Julie seems to disagree.


Bess said...

well, you still seem pretty impressive to me.

love this post - feel the same way, irked by the assumption that she is gay because she is not femme or married, but hey.. if she were on our team I would't be sad.

But also, as a single-sex-(primary)-educated woman too, where did Kagan go to single sex school? I thought she went to Hunter, Princeton, and Harv?

Lauren said...

I have a lawyer friend on Facebook saying that it is absolutely not a whisper campaign--but an open secret. That she has a partner at Harvard and that Andrew Sullivan has been writing about it at the Atlantic Monthly. I tried to verify his account, but the few websites that popped up at first all say it's a rumor.

I like the way you framed the issue and the clever way you put it.

Tenured Radical said...

Bess: Hunter High was single sex when Elena and I were young.

Lauren: Affirmative on that one. My sources concur.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Political actors don't always make sense to me, but it doesn't make sense for the Obama administration to explicitly deny Kagan's lesbian identity if it's a confirmable fact.

Either way, I think you're right that the presumption that sexual identity is a relevant political or professional qualification is rather problematic. Given the current religious makeup of the court, not to mention its historic gender imbalance and absurdly long turnover process, the idea that the Supreme Court could be a demographically representative body is pretty far out.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, what bothers me about the affirmative action that benefited you a lot and Ms. Kagan even more is not that it discriminates against men but that it is tokenism granted by the men that remain in charge. A faculty member here, a Secretary of State there, but who runs your university and who runs the country?

As for Harry Belafonte, I lost all respect for him when he dumped his white wife so he could be more relevant during the civil rights movement. He did popularize some pretty good songs, though-- but you should have heard Lord Invader and his Penetrators back in the day!

shaz said...

I didn't spend tons of time chatting up hot chicks, and I still am way behind the Kagan curve of achievement, so you are one up on me, at least.

I once had a senior colleague who consistently confused me with another female colleague. About the only thing we had in common was the size of our breasts. Guess he was focusing on what really mattered to him...

Susan said...

Heh. Sonia Sotomayor was my classmate at Princeton. Kagan won one of Princeton's highest awards (not open to women when I graduated). I think I'm smart, but they were smarter :)

Anastasia said...

I'm all for getting a hard worker on the SCOTUS.

Is Hunter High the same school that Pauli Murray attended?

Tenured Radical said...

Murray went to Hunter College: Hunter High was the prep for Hunter College, back in the day when we believed in public education.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Well, according to her friends, she ain't gay -- she just never met Mr. Right. See http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/37114.html
Happens to a lot of brainy straight women -- you probably even know some.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Hmmm, the link in the above comment does not seem to be working. But if you hurry, you can get to the story from the first page of the Politico website. And I'm sure its available elsewhere.

Shane in Utah said...

This is really a most bizarre coincidence: last night I was putting together the set list for my radio show, and decided on the original version of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" by King Radio. What a great song!

Anonymous said...

Hunter High is a public school with an admissions test, here's comments
from her Hunter classmates:

GayProf said...

Just why do women justices wear that odd collar thingy? It kinda downgrades their robes into something akin to flight attendant gear. Come to think of it, why do flight attendants often wear those odd accessories?

And I totally object to accepting Phyllis Schlafly as a lesbian... Unless she is in a love triangle with Anita Bryant and Margret Thatcher. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

Historiann said...

GayProf: it was William Rehnquist who made the strangest (and some might say the gayest) addition to his black robe when he added those two golden rings to the sleeves. By comparison, Sotomayor's and Ginsburg's lace jabots look dignified and somber. (My objection to them is that they make the two ladies look like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.)

I of course would go for a lower-cut, more figure-hugging judicial robe, but that's because I'm fabulous. (And sadly, unlikely ever to be a nominee for a SCOTUS appointment.)

Tenured Radical said...


You would be a perfect nominee for SCOTUS since you have no judicial paper trail whatsoever.

Historiann said...

TR, it's true that I have no judicial paper trail. However, I have a very injudicious pixel trail due to my generous sharing of my opinions at Historiann.com for the past two and a half years.

Sensible, cautious, and ambitious people like Kagan don't share their true opinions in any forum, let alone on non peer-reviewed blogs.