Does It Matter If A Woman In Public Life Has Kids?


Peter Beinart says Obama should nominate a mother to serve on the Supreme Court. He might have a point.

Beinart — who mentions his working wife and their two year old daughter — is being intentionally provocative in his Daily Beast story. That none of this is particularly fair to any of the nominees comes with the territory of being a pioneer, heavily scrutinized and asked to stand in as a role model. And, sad to say, women in public life are still pioneers.

So why does Beinart want a mother? (His pick is Diane Wood.)

Otherwise, the message you’re sending young women is that they can achieve professionally, or they can have a family, but they can’t do both. And without quite realizing it, that is the message our government has been sending. According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of American women over the age of 40 have children. But look at the women who have held Cabinet posts in the last three presidential administrations. Only two of the Clinton administration’s five female Cabinet secretaries had kids. (Attorney General Janet Reno got her job only after two women with children, Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, were dinged for hiring illegal immigrants as nannies). In the Bush administration, the figure was two of seven. In the Obama administration, so far, it is two of four. And if Obama chooses Elena Kagan for the High Court, the figure there will be one of three.

Also, did you know that every single one of the male Supreme Court justices has kids, and Antonin Scalia has nine? Of course, life is no picnic for childless women in the public eye, who are portrayed as either selfish or sad. Most recently, we saw Sonia Sotomayor portrayed as a pathetic singleton who lavished her clerks with attention in the absence of the love provided by children, or simply as a lesbian.

And Beinart points to Ed Rendell’s comment about Janet Napolitano: “Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to it.” Beinart adds, “Message to little Janets: Go ahead, shoot for the stars. Just be prepared for a life devoid of anything but work.”

Clearly many of these childless women in public life may simply not have wanted children. But others surely made a rational, if limited, choice, as women worldwide have: Faced with the significant societal hurdles of having both children and a career, they picked the latter.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has children, a fact that she has said prevented her from being hired at a law firm in the 1950s. In 1993, she said, “In the fifties, the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. … But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot, that combination was a bit much.” Later, when she became pregnant with her second child, she was afraid of losing her job and wore loose-fitting clothes that belonged to her mother in law.

That, of course, was a trick employed much later by one Sarah Palin, who has five children — a trait shared by Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachmann, as that recent tongue-in-cheek Times Style piece pointed out. “Whatever forces may be at play, taking a look at present dynamics, any American woman with long-range political ambitions might do well to also look to her nursery,” Liesl Schillinger wrote in that piece.

But they did so with significant familial and financial support (as my mother, another working mother of five, also did), and with plenty of sacrifices. It’s hard not to look at the evidence and conclude that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Put A Mom On The Court [Daily Beast]
Related: The Place Of Women On The Court [NYT]
Noticed: The Female Equivalent Of ‘Strange Bedfellows’ [NYT]

Earlier: How Reproductive Choice Could Save The World
“Gay, Handicapped, Black Woman Who’s An Immigrant”: Glenn Beck’s SCOTUS Pick

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