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

May 11, 2010, 1:59 pm

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.

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