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Is Kagan Being Attacked by the Work/Life Balancers?

Vivia Chen

May 24, 2010

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. Belkin[4]

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


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I totally agree with Tammie. There are many reasons why a woman has not married or did not have children, it's not necessarly because of their careers! Like me, I do not want children, but it has nothing to do with pursuing a career, I just have not interest in being a mom,

"For men, having a family is an asset while pursuing a demanding career. For women, it is still a complication."

This statement by Lisa Belkin, uncommented on and taken for granted in this article is a startlingly ridiculous and out of date belief that is completely unsupported by facts. As a father of two young children I can tell you that no one is giving me any extra credit for being a good family man. Instead I was told on more than one occasion by former (female) supervisors that they considered any time away from my job to handle family commitments a distraction that they were not prepared to tolerate. In addition, I know several men whose careers have been affected negatively by the perception that they are too saddled with family obligations to be "totally committed to success." Rather than the workplace becoming a more family friendly place with the addition of women, both women and men are increasingly pressured to sacrfice either their career or their family yearnings at the altar of "business comes first."

Vanessa, I am actually an executive who makes almost as much money as my husband, and probably more money than you. And it's obvious you don't have kids, as even older ones still seek nurturing and physical affection from their mothers - mine is in kindergarten and he still loves to snuggle! Sorry you're so bitter about your own life. Good luck with that in the future.

AML, get over yourself. You sound like a stay at home mom whose husband controls the purse strings and who fears the day your child learns to speak in complete sentences because he might not be your little cuddle muffin anymore :( then what will you do? More vacuuming I guess.

I'm sorry, but I feel pity for women who put their career ahead of getting married and having a family. "Feminist," right now, in your 20s, you probably feel empowered and successful. By the time you hit your mid-thirties, and you watch other people going through life milestones you're missing, it won't feel the same way. The career-focused feminists I know who were so proud of themselves ten years ago at 28 are now frantically signing up on dating sites and contacting sperm banks, so they don't miss out on the best life has to offer - which is NOT sitting at a desk 12 hours a day.
You can love your career, or your job. Those things do not love you back. These days, companies can chew up and spit out people who have sacrificed years of their life without a second thought. When it's all said and done, a laid-off, 48-year-old childless, single woman has nothing - no partner, no child, no job. Pathetic and sad. I would be happier if Sotomayor and Kagan had managed to have some of the experiences most American women have had in terms of finding a partner and/or having a child because I do think that would give them broader viewpoints into how most Americans live. Having a child has greatly broadened my horizons and taught me to have compassion for others I previously had shunned, because everyone is someone's child. It's a shame so many "successful" (although I think having no life outside your job is hardly success) judges haven't figured out how to balance their work and personal lives.

Ever heard of IRA? And if you are lucky enough to retire, you get it all back when you reach 65. i don't think any of us will be paying for kegan's retirement.

the last comment is judgmental and typical right wing. Marriage is a big step that can't be taken lightly. You cant just hurry up marriage because society tells you to. I wonder how many have kids just to please someone else and they end up in foster care with us taxpayers paying it. The childless dont lack empathy. If anything I have learned from being childless but not by choice is empathy for other people's decisions. Excuse me retirement is something you earned and worked for. it is deducted from your check each week. Ever heard of FICA? Maybe I deserve my health care being paid for because us childless are stuck paying the most taxes. We are the ones keeping up welfare food stamps, and schools more than anyone. and how is someone's single state effecting you?

Feminist - good luck on the "someday, perhaps I'll slow down and make time for a partner - I think that would be nice. I do not want children, now or ever, no matter what..." (a) someday will likely never happen with an attitude like that and (b) I suppose my children will be stuck paying the bill for your retirement and healthcare under the ponzi scheme the feds have set up. Enjoy your career. I'm sure all the partners will come to your funeral right after they ransack your office. Childless feminists are a dying breed - literally. The future belongs to those who show up and it won't be your kids certainly.

I don't think the fact that Kagan is not a mother precludes her from being a good choice for the Supreme Court. That being said, I do think there is value to having women who are mothers on the Court. Eighty percent of women become mothers before the age of 44. Like the "wise Latina," a mother's experiences may give her a different or deeper understanding of facts in some cases. That's why diversity is so important: to get the most information on the table to lead to a better decision.

I think the more interesting issue is that so few women who are mothers achieve at the highest levels in the careers. So many professional women do find their careers derailed once they become mothers. It's not a matter of capability. It's luck - how few or how many barriers they must hurdle. Does your child have a learning disability? Does your employer give you flexibility? Does your employer assume you are no longer committed to your job. Does your parent require care? Do you have affordable quality childcare? The majority of women do not drop out of the paid workforce altogether, at least for significant lengths of time. But reduced hours or other modifications to jobs, even for short periods, often lead a permanent halt in career progression (as so many employers equate time spent with commitment). Other women choose to open their own businesses to get the flexibility they need. Doing so has benefits, but rarely leads to the top of the corporate ladder.

Women tend to pit ourselves against those that have made different "choices"; we've even come up with a term: "the mommy wars." We need to stop wasting energy fighting with each other. We all want the same thing: to be free to choose or not choose to have children while being able to choose or not choose to achieve at the highest levels in our profession. BTW, fathers want to be able to spend time with their kids too. And kids do better with happy parents. Incorporating more flexibility into the workplace structure (telework, compressed workweeks, modified hours, or reduced hours) allows adults to be able to dedicate themselves to work, home AND self, leading to sustainable workplaces, families and communities.

Thank you times one million for this article. I'm a 20something female HLS grad who is currently "married to my career". Someday, perhaps I'll slow down and make time for a partner - I think that would be nice. I do not want children, now or ever, no matter what -- even if I had a partner who would do 100 percent of the work and it would not hinder my career even one day's worth. The idea that Kagan is "missing something" is outdated and offensive. But the idea that we should not elevate women to the High Court who may have CHOSEN not to marry and/or have kids is downright sexist and misogynist. I'm outraged that so many of these comments are coming from women, who apparently only want to see other women succeed who have made life choices similar to their own.

There are many reasons why a woman may not be married, and her career may have nothing to do with it. Maybe the right guy didn't come along and the person didn't want to "settle" just to be married. Or maybe the right guy wasn't willing to commit at the time. And contrary to popular opinion, not all women "desperately" want children. If a woman can make such high strides in her career, I'm sure she has the ability to juggle both career and a husband/family, if that's what she wanted, or the opportunity presented itself.

You go, girl! That's the first sane thing I've seen written on this subject. I've seen plenty so far about how the Court needs another mother on it, as if being a Harvard law school dean and solicitor general and all-around brilliant lawyer aren't good enough -- if you're female, you'd better be a mother, too. Does anyone ever demand that men on the Supreme Court be fathers? Is that ever considered a credential for male lawyers? Thank you for pointing out the absurdity of this retrograde and far-too-widely held public opinion!

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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