The absurd call for a "mom on the Supreme Court"

Appointing another mother to the Supreme Court won't change the fact that "having it all" is hard as hell

Published April 27, 2010 1:30PM (EDT)

Just the title and teaser for Peter Beinart's recent piece about the importance of female role models (and why Obama should pick Diane Wood over Elena Kagan as his next Supreme Court nominee) in The Daily Beast had me WTF-ing something fierce. (To be fair, it's entirely possible that both of those were written by an editor, but since they set the tone for Beinart's argument, let's start there anyway.) Title: "Put a Mom on the Supreme Court." OK, you mean besides Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose name somehow never comes up here? Or, if we include past justices, Sandra Day O'Connor? Beinart's concerned that women with children are "underrepresented in high office," and sees the decision between Kagan and Wood as an opportunity to redress that, but by my count, there's been exactly one woman without children on the Supreme Court in all of American history, and she's been there for about five minutes, so I fail to see a worrying trend here.

Granted, that one woman represents a third of all women who have ever served on the court, which is considerably higher than the number (about 20 percent) of all American women who come to the end of their fertile years without having kids. But Supreme Court justices are not average women; they are, in fact, extraordinarily high-achieving women -- as evidenced by the fact that there have been three of them, vs. 108 men, in all of American history. And if I've learned anything from the panic about career women failing to reproduce that's been going on at least since 2002, when Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" was released, it's that "ultra achievers" are way less likely to have kids.

According to a 2008 Census Bureau report, 27 percent of women aged 40 to 44 who have advanced degrees are not mothers. And among the professional women Hewlett surveyed, only about half of those making more than $100,000 a year had children. So, given that we're talking about highly educated, high-earning women here, the current distribution of women on the Supreme Court -- one mom and one non-mom -- seems to be right on target. The appointment of either Wood (mom) or Kagan (non-mom) would mess up that balance, but since Beinart's comparing women who have reached the pinnacle of a traditionally male profession to their entire gender -- including stay-at-home moms, part-time employees, and those who take care of ultra-achievers' kids for a living, among others -- he thinks adding one more childless woman would paint an unfairly dispiriting picture of women's ability to achieve dreams of both motherhood and professional success.

Which brings us to the first sentence of the teaser I mentioned: "A surprising percentage of women nominated to top government jobs have no children." Surprising? Really? I'm sorry, but anyone who's surprised that relatively few women can balance child rearing and the level of effort it takes to reach the top of their field -- especially women who came of age in the 1970s and '80s -- must be living in a different America than mine.

"Just as Barack Obama empowers African-American kids to believe that there are no limits to what they can achieve," writes Beinart, "female Supreme Court justices send the same message to young women. As anyone who has ever watched their daughter eye a Barbie Doll can attest, role models matter. And that's why it's important not just to have lots of women in positions of political power, but to have lots of women with kids. It's important because 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."

Ah, yes, the impression that motherhood and extraordinary professional achievement are contraindicated is all just a big mix-up, an unfortunate message sent by a government that just wasn't paying enough attention to subtleties. The problem here is not that American women still get stuck with a far greater share of the housework and childcare responsibilities than men, or that high-end professional success usually requires long hours and single-minded devotion to one's career, or that many couples decide there's no point in both of them working if one partner's income isn't much greater than the cost of daycare (and guess which partner that usually is), or that employers still assume mothers will be too distracted to work hard, or that any mother who admits to wanting to dedicate a substantial portion of her life to furthering her own career goals at the possible expense of little Henry and Eleanor's uninterrupted happiness is cast as selfish and unfeminine, or that people like Sylvia Ann Hewlett are constantly telling women not to risk our fertility by focusing too long on other ambitions. It's that little girls just haven't seen enough Working Mom Barbies in positions of power -- and if they did, they'd understand that they really can have it all! Just like little African-American boys can all see a bright future for themselves now that an extremely privileged biracial man is president.

Hang on, it gets even funnier. "Critics might argue that even publicly discussing whether a female Supreme Court contender has kids represents a sexist double standard: another example of the disproportionate personal scrutiny that women in public life must endure. But there's a reason for that disproportionate scrutiny: Men with children don't have a role-model problem." Oh, is that the reason? "After all, every one of the male Supremes has kids."

And in a completely unrelated story, every one of the male Supremes also has a wife. Oh, wait. Shall we go over the point about women still being expected to be the primary caregivers in heterosexual parenting partnerships once more? Do you suppose there might be a connection there? If you're still confused, you need only look to a "syrupy" USA Today feature Beinart mentions, which examined John Roberts' efforts to balance being chief justice and a dad. Short version: He shows up for stuff! He breaks up fights! He "helps put them to bed" -- just as he undoubtedly, like many married men, "helps" his wife with all manner of tedious tasks that are still understood to be her purview, as opposed to a shared responsibility. What a guy! Then contrast that, as Beinart (to his credit) does, with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's remarks about Janet Napolitano being ideal for a demanding job like secretary of Homeland Security because she has no kids and therefore "no life." Writes Beinart: "Message to little Johnnies everywhere: You can have a great job and a great life all at the same time ... Message to little Janets: Go ahead, shoot for the stars. Just be prepared for a life devoid of anything but work."

Beinart certainly means well, and he's on the right track here, except the problem is not the "message" but the reality. A woman who doesn't have children is seen as having "no life," but is also seen as unusually well-suited to a job that demands, as Rendell put it, devoting "literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to it." Much like becoming partner in a major law firm, a U.S. attorney and the attorney general of Arizona -- that's how Napolitano spent the traditional childbearing years -- and doing all of it well enough to subsequently be elected governor, demands a similar commitment. But imagine if Napolitano had had a kid or two somewhere in there. Imagine she even had a partner who stayed home, or at least a top-notch outside childcare arrangement. Technically, she might have been able to accomplish all the same things; a man in that situation certainly could. But in addition to doing most of the housework and hands-on childcare while not at work, trying to stay sharp while surrendering sleep to a child who's breast-feeding or sick or freaked out by the monsters in his closet, working twice as hard to convince her employers that she was as devoted to the job as ever, and having practically no free time to decompress from either of her occupations or maintain her relationship, once she moved on to campaigning for elected office, she would have had to convince her constituents that she wasn't some kind of heartless monster for being willing to take on such important responsibilities while she still had children at home who needed their mother.

Think I'm exaggerating? You might recall that alongside all the well-deserved criticism Sarah Palin took in 2008, there was also a whole bunch of bullshit hand-wringing about her poor young children and what would happen to them if Mommy became vice-president. And you might also recall that not a soul was worried about John Edwards failing his two little kids when he ran for the same office in 2004. And you might think, if you are the slightest bit intellectually honest, "Hey, that looks like kind of a nasty double standard."

While we're at it, you might also look at the folks who hold positions of political power and notice that, despite some notable exceptions, the vast majority are still wealthy, white, heterosexual men with no visible disabilities. And you might conclude from this that getting very far in politics usually requires not only hard work and determination but a hell of a lot of money, support and social advantages. One of those advantages, if you haven't worked it out yet, is being able to have children and still be permitted -- indeed, expected -- to prioritize your career above them.

Michelle and Barack Obama, for example, started out as equally well-educated and promising young lawyers, but then one of them went on the road so often trying to advance a political career that the couple didn't spend seven days in a row under the same roof for over a decade, while the other functioned as a single parent much of the time. One of them surrendered more and more to the other's ambition over the years until "high-profile spouse" was the only career option available. Because the man's ambition took him all the way to the presidency and the woman's support of him took her all the way to "mom-in-chief," nobody bats an eye. But you try and tell me with a straight face that a woman with young children could leave them at home with Dad while she pursued a political career, expect Dad to eventually give up his career to support hers, get elected president (in part because her devoted spouse got out there and presented a non-threatening, homey image), and then take on that job without anyone ever saying, "What about the kids? Shouldn't she be worried about raising them instead of running the country? And by the way, who is this pansy who gave up his entire life to help his wife follow her dream? What kind of role model is he for young men? And what kind of ball-busting bitch must she be to have convinced him to do it? Do we really want people like that in the White House?"

Look, I'm all for seeing more mothers in positions of power, and I think Diane Wood would be a fine choice for the Supreme Court. But the problem here is not a lack of role models. It's an overwhelming lack of support for working mothers and respect for female ambition. And the idea that the success of childless women is somehow sending the wrong message to little girls -- who are still, after all, growing up in a society where 80 percent of women eventually have children (and among the other 20 percent are women who were infertile, who were prevented from adopting for one reason or another, who never found the right partner and weren't up to the challenge of single motherhood, etc., not just women who chose to be child-free, as Beinart claims) -- is absurd. In fact, it's sending a very honest message: That the expectations placed on mothers and on highly ambitious professionals are both so demanding that it is actually incredibly difficult for women to "have it all." A job and a kid, sure, that's possible. But kids and a Supreme Court appointment? Well, two women have already pulled it off against all odds, but the odds still suck. Seeing Wood on the court would not change that.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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