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.