I've resisted throwing in my two cents about Elena Kagan's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, because who hasn't? So much chatter about the "real Elena" that you'd think we're talking about Lady Gaga's love life. Is she liberal or conservative? Or an amoral careerist? Is she gay--and, if so, why doesn't she come out? What does she really eat for breakfast?
But among women lawyers the buzz is about her unmarried and childless state, and what that says about the high price women pay for success in our society. To some, it sends the wrong message to put another high-achieving woman whose career is her life on the high court. (Sonia Sotomayor, the most recent Supreme Court justice, is also single and childless.) Peter Beinart argues in The Daily Beast that what's really needed is a mama-candidate who can show the world that it's possible to juggle a high-flying career and change the diapers.
Recently, Lisa Belkin, the New York Times's resident work/life guru, weighed in on the issue. Her article, "Judging Women," was insightful and reasoned--and depressingly regressive.
At first, Belkin (pictured right) makes an interesting observation: The first two female Supreme Court justices (Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) managed to be mothers and wives, though they graduated from law school in the 1950s when women lawyers stood out as odd ducks. She attributes their ability to have both career and family to a "paradoxical freedom" that came with low expectations of women: "Because no top-tier law firm would hire O'Connor, she took a series of slower-track jobs, then spent five years as a stay-at-home mom."
Kagan, 50, and Sotomayor, 55, came of age in a wholly different era, writes Belkin, when "a teenage Kagan could pose in judicial robes in her high school yearbook, because such a dream was possible."
But there's a price for the raised expectation, warns Belkin:
Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career...There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.
To buttress her argument that women face stark choices, Belkin cites author Sylvia Ann Hewlett. As you might recall, Hewlett caused a baby panic among professional women several years ago when she urged women to give more priority to having kids before it was too late. In her book Creating a Life, Hewlett found that a third to one-half of career-focused women at age 40 were childless, though they desperately longed for kids.
Belkin probably doesn't mean to send women into a panic the way Hewlett did. But what's disturbing is Belkin's underlying assumption that career women are leading incomplete lives unless there's a fire burning at home. She tries to be encouraging when she cites women who've managed to have it all: "Think Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, Meg Whitman, and Hillary Clinton." At the same time, though, Belkin sounds an alarm:
For men, having a family is an asset while pursuing a demanding career. For women, it is still a complication. So maybe the Kagan nomination sends the 'wrong' message, but at the moment it is also a realistic--and cautionary--one.
"Cautionary?" Are we back there again--warning girls of the perils of being too career-minded? Is Belkin recasting Kagan's life into a parable about the inevitable loneliness that befalls super-achieving women? Aside from reinforcing stereotypes, Belkin and others in the work/life balance trenches seem obsessed with imposing their own traditional priorities onto Kagan.
Maybe Kagan is married to her job. And maybe it's a deliriously happy marriage. Anything wrong with that?
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.
Photo of Elena Kagan courtesy of The White House
Photo of Belkin courtesy of The New York Times