Is motherhood authorizing?

How’s this for a brilliant “feminist” argument:  Peter Beinart urges President Obama to “Put a Mom on the Court!” 

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. 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.

What–you didn’t realize that having all but one non-parent on the U.S. Supreme Court now was disadvantaging women?  Yeah:  that’s why we get teh suckity-suck from the SCOTUS these days:  The Ledbetter (2007) and Gonzales (2007) decisions were all due to the fact that there aren’t enough moms on the Supreme Court.

So much for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s two kids.  I guess they don’t count!  (Beinart doesn’t acknowledge the fact that she’s a “mom.”  Does he think only premenopausal women qualify as “moms?”)  Sandra Day O’Connor has three sons.  We’ve had a total of three women on the Supreme Court in U.S. history, one of whom (Sonia Sotomayor, appointed just last year) doesn’t have children, and now Peter Beinart’s in a panic to put a “mom” on the Supreme Court.  Srsly.  (Hey–I hear Sarah Palin is available!  How does that sound to y’all?)

Is the fact that Antonin Scalia has nine children the reason his jurisprudence differed so widely from that of his childless colleague, David Souter?  Or could it be that the issue is more complex?  Parenthood is such a widespread experience of American adults, and such a variable one at that, that I’m pretty confident that political and ideological diversity among parents is just as great as that between parents and non-parents.  I personally don’t care whether or not the next Supreme Court justice is a mother, or a father, or not.  That seems to be only of trifling consideration compared to hir judicial philosophy and ideological proclivities.  (Another woman would be great, but I’m not holding my breath.  Women, whether they have children or not, are a historically disadvantaged class of people in the U.S.  Parents are not.)

Besides, if Obama appointed a “mom,” she’d just disappoint us, as all mothers do.  What could one woman do with the SCOTUS we’ve got right now?  And yet, we’d still expect her to clean it all up by herself, and then make us dinner (NOT with broccoli–you know we don’t like broccoli, Mom!)

0 thoughts on “Is motherhood authorizing?

  1. Historiann, you just.don’, do you?

    The essence of female existence, our sole true purpose and the meaning of our lives, is childearing and -rearing. A woman without children is like an empty shell of a human being, a pathetic, bitter person who cannot possibly attain wisdom or empathy. Oh, the horror. THE HORROR!! A man’s children, or lack thereof, are irrelevant to his attainment of a mature intellectual and emotional life. But childless women are kind of monstrous, don’t you think? If we want “real” women in positions of power, that means we want mommies. All those others are just fembot anathema.

    (tee-hee! I used the phrase “fembot anathema!”)


  2. You’re missing the point here, H’ann: It’s not that these guys think moms are good; it’s just that, in order to get a nominee through, we need to appease all the people who believe that successful women without children are, by nature, bitchy, grasping, ladder-climbing, and castrating. And that all moms are soft and cuddly.

    It’s all for the greater good, laydeez. So if you’d just move to the back of the line again… there’s a good girl.


  3. Sq.–that’s exactly what I found weird about Beinart’s commentary. He cites the pathetically low number of women in the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations, and then says the REAL problem is that there aren’t enough mothers?

    Clue stick for the clueless: if the women appointees in any given administration are in the single digits, that’s a bigger problem than their status as parents or non-parents.

    I guess Beinart, as a husband and father, doesn’t want to deal with the fact that motherhood competes with women’s professional achievements because male partners don’t step up, not because motherhood “naturally” undermines women.


  4. Notorious: you’re right that this plays into stereotypes about child-free women as cold, hard, monstrous “fembot anathema,” as Sq. said.

    I also wonder what Beinart’s comments say about our restrictive definition of motherhood especially: who counts as a mother? Women who have pushed a baby out of their vaginas? Do women who scheduled C-sections count? How many children count–are mothers of only children suspicious because of their hesitation to create a larger family? What about adoptive mothers? What about women who never had their own biochildren, but who fostered or adopted a relative or older child? Are they all “moms,” equally, or do some mothers count more than others? What if we find out that Sonia Sotomayor had a baby in high school and gave hir up for adoption? Does that make her a “mom” now, too? (I’m not encouraging speculation about Associate Justice Sotomayor–I’m just suggesting that “motherhood” is more complicated than Beinart wants to make it.)


  5. Wow, by this math, unless you’re female and your kids are under 18, you’re off the parent bench entirely (even if you’re still sitting on the SCOTUS).

    I’m not much for identity politics as a cure-all. As you say, Sarah Palin is famously a mother as well as a high-profile political figure. And yet I think most of us would agree that hardly qualifies her to sit on the Supreme Court.

    Lazy logic, Mr. Beinart!


  6. while I agree with all comments about the danger of attributing political ideology to parenthood and the problem of inextricably tying womanhood and motherhood, I think it’s only fair to point out that Beinart, in the quoted section, is arguing that having few women with kids at home in prominent political positions reinforces a message that’s all too common in academic circles too: you have to choose between being a successful professional and being a mother. There are definite backstories to that message and it may not be the most salient argument to consider with regard to the SCOTUS. But, his logic, in that paragraph, isn’t actually so specious.


  7. The question, c…, is whether providing “role models” is what government is, or should be, about. It’s a wonderful benefit when powerful people do model certain behaviors for our society, but should they be chosen with that factor in mind? And do young women or girls really look for role models in that way? I’d wager that most young women are excited just to see women in positions of power, or perhaps people of a similar racial /ethnic/ religious background — things that are more public and on the surface. I tend to doubt that many young women are parsing their role models’ private lives as well.


  8. c . . . I agree that mothers have it harder than fathers in professional and public life. But that’s mostly because they’re women, not because they’re mothers. There’s no question that motherhood subjects women to all manner of assumptions about women’s competence, likeability, and warmth. (Just as the fact of non-motherhood invokes another set of stereotypes that are deployed against non-mothers.)

    Beinart should “tend his own garden” perhaps–who’s taking care of his 2-year old? Who took family leave from work when she was adopted or born? Whose career took the bigger hit, his or his wife’s? A “mom” on the supreme court isn’t going to change the micropolitics of American families.


  9. is arguing that having few women with kids at home in prominent political positions reinforces a message that’s all too common in academic circles too: you have to choose between being a successful professional and being a mother.

    It’s not the message, it’s the reality, and the reality is called patriarchy. The “message” will change when reality changes and reality won’t change through affirmative action for selective mommies that leaves the fundamentals of patriarchy in place.


  10. oh, absolutely, everyone, and “more moms” is a completely narrow-minded approach to judicial goals that support women. The “role models” argument can be both limited and limiting (and, as Sq. points out, is a slippery role for government to play). Setting aside for the moment the specific ways Beinart’s argument is problematic, though, I do think that the reality that women are asked to choose in a way that men simply aren’t is a complicated reality to change if there aren’t functional models (rather that role models) to work from. This may be my bias as a rhetorician shining through, but I think changes to reality often occur in tandem with changes to symbolic structures … so I tend to think that we need better family and medical leave policies, changes to education systems that disempower girls, etc. and we need new imaginaries that help us see those changes as necessary, possible, even inevitable.

    In any case, thanks for staging yet another useful and informative discussion, Historiann and company. I always enjoy reading and learning.


  11. the reality that women are asked to choose in a way that men simply aren’t

    I don’t think it was intended as such but the classism in this sort of statement (and in Beinart’s argument as well) really rubs me the wrong way. Many mothers don’t get to “choose,” they simply must work for a wage to feed and shelter their families. According the Department of Labor, 71% of US mothers with children under 18 were working outside the home in 2008. Why aren’t those mothers role models for girls? Why aren’t those mothers “functional models” of mothers at work?

    Working mothers stats here

    The US Department of Labor website links to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Women in the labor force databook


  12. It’s almost too depressing to point out the mandatory motherhood (by any means necessary) logic in the Oklahoma anti-abortion legislation. Plus “get back to the kitchen” as published campaign material earlier this week.

    Truffula, I think you’re right that the Beinart is referencing a phenomenon academics are familiar with– having children could, given domestic politics, departmental politics, and institutional policies, make it harder for women to have careers *as successful as those of their male colleagues.* The stats are there and the anecdotes are plentiful.

    But that’s a wholly different issue from the one most women face, which is having to work to support their families in jobs that are much less flexible and in which “career success” shouldn’t be the measure of achievement. Feeding, clothing, and educating those kids is the mountain to climb.


  13. c . . ., thanks for your further comment. It’s like I’ve said here before: the big problem is that we have so few women prominent women role models in public life, so the few women we have (four women in Obama’s cabinet! FOUR!) have to bear the weight of such unreasonable scrutiny of their lives and choices.

    And, please note for the record: George W. Bush’s cabinet had almost twice as many women as Obama’s has.


  14. I strongly disagree with the idea that because I have an expensive education and an academic job to go with it that I’m a better role model than a mother who works cleaning bathrooms for a living.

    You know, I need this job to support my family. If I lost it, we’d be out on the street. I have tenure and my salary is higher than average but I work long hours in order to sustain it. I work this job and one at home. My salary is, on average, lower than equivalent male colleagues. I endure sexual harassment and patronizing attitudes about what I can and can’t do. Most of this seems pretty universal, not just the plight of the academic class mother. As Emma wrote, none of this will change without addressing patriarchy, no matter how many overworked academic moms there are in the world.


  15. I actually do believe that the fact that Justice Scalia has nine children is relevant to his judicial philosophy, especially in that I believe that each is deeply rooted in his Catholic faith–a tradition that views parenthood as a positive moral good. (And, of course, a tradition that sees motherhood and fatherhood differently *quite* differently, needless to say.) I am not sure that Justice Souter would say that his ideas of faith and family impacted his rulings the same way.

    Of course–this is exactly why it is important to have *thoughtful* discussions of the role of family, gender, and life experience when talking about the Court. For some of the Justices–particularly the male Catholic Justices like Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia–I think their ideas of family, broadly construed, impact the way they see the world and rule on cases. For other Justices, I am not so sure. It matters that the Justices most concerned about protecting potential mothers from psychological harm if they have abortions they later regret–I am looking at you, Kennedy–are fathers.

    Of course, that means going beyond Beinart’s knee-jerk, ham-handed (am I mixing bodily metaphors too much?) approach and asking *when* ideas matter when it comes to jurisprudence, *for whom* it matters, *why* is matters, and *how* it matters.


  16. Scalia’s Catholicism is part of it–but look at the difference between his family and the family of the Chief Justice, who has only two rather late-in-life children with his approximate age-peer wife. They’re both Catholic, and they both have children–but there’s considerable diversity in the personal lives of the 5 men who form the all-Catholic conservative majority. (Clarence Thomas is divorced and remarried!)

    See how easy it is to see differences among fathers? I wonder if we tried really hard, we could do the same for mothers. . . ? As you suggest John S., complexity is hard, and resorting to stereotypes so simple!


  17. My interpretation is that Beinert favors Diane Wood over Elena Kagan, finding Wood’s politics a bit more simpatico, but thinks that rather than say Kagan’s something of a neocon warmonger he might as well pick up points with his wife or other mothers he knows. So he makes a virtue of Wood’s children, claiming they are a credential.

    Children were no such thing for two out of the three female Justices when they were nominated. And as for his role model claims, notice Beiner didn’t say anything about O’Connor or Ginsburg inspiring girls about motherhood, because they didn’t. I doubt young girls would think Wood’s old-ish kids have anything to do with their lives.

    But whatever, for Beinert. It’s all laydeebizness and thus not important, so he doesn’t have to bother firing up his brain before sorting women into a worthy and an unworthy pile.


  18. There is also a meta-point here beyond the significance of asserting that powerful women should have children. Beinert assumes without acknowledgment that women in any prominent position of power by necessity must by their very existence “send a message” to other women about what it means to be a woman, blah, blah, blah. When a d00d takes a position of power, it’s not interpreted as “sending a message” to other d00ds about the meaning of d00dliness; it’s just taking what’s rightfully his.


  19. Right after I read this post, I went over to Facebook and saw this posted as a friend’s status update:

    “For all the Moms who have traded eyeliner for dark circles, salon hair cuts for ponytails, long showers for stubble on their legs, late nights for early mornings, designer purses for diaper bags and wouldn’t change a thing!! I LOVE MY KIDS!!!! With Mother’s day drawing near lets see how many Mom’s Repost this. Mom’s don’t care what they gave up …and will continue to give up for our kids! ♥”

    Obviously, any mother who makes it to the Supreme Court is a very bad mother for not giving enough up … or any mother who actually misses her designer purses, or her chance at a legal career.


  20. “That’s a message that I’d like my working wife—and our 2-year-old daughter—to hear.”

    I bet she’d be even happier hearing Bienart doing the dishes in the morning or or hearing him put the two year old to bed while she is finishing her briefcase. To paraphrase my favorite Charles Barkley ad from the 90’s. “Just because I can draft a brief and strike down legislation doesn’t make me a role model, spouses should be role models”


  21. When a d00d takes a position of power, it’s not interpreted as “sending a message” to other d00ds about the meaning of d00dliness; it’s just taking what’s rightfully his.

    And of course Beinert isn’t writing about a woman taking anything. He seeks to influence a decision of the d00ds and by the d00ds, though perhaps not for the d00ds. Reject the bad kind of woman, Mr. President, and extend your d00dly bounty to the good kind.


  22. Perhaps this is odd, but my reaction to that paragraph was not at all like everybody else’s here.

    I really don’t think Beinart was saying that childless women are less desirable as people or as politically powerful figures. I think his point about showing that a woman *can* be a parent while holding a very important and work-intensive job is rather valid, because while it should be perfectly acceptable for women not to have children, the reality is that many do *want* to, which means that it’s also very important for that to be compatible with having a high-profile career. Yes, of course these women’s husbands (if they have them) should be doing an equal share of the housework and childcare, and yes, unfortunately they probably won’t, but at least if there are many well-known examples of women succeeding at both being parents and being politicians/judges/etc. the idea may become more accepted.

    As to whether paying attention to the parent status of a potential candidate reinforces stereotypes: um, I feel like, at least in the case of women, a lot of attention is *already* paid to this, so it would be good at least to ensure that it’s not attention of the oh-if-she-has-a-family-we-don’t-want-her type.
    And more directly to the stereotype issue: well, how is that different from the notion that specifically asking for a female candidate reinforces gender stereotypes by assuming that a woman will necessarily contribute a meaningfully different perspective? (I guess the answer would be that women are a category specifically underrepresented, and they shouldn’t be, hence we want more of them (us). However, while, as it has been pointed out, parents per se are not underrepresented, *mothers* are (even compared to women in general, it seems), so I feel like that would apply there too.)


  23. “I think his point about showing that a woman *can* be a parent while holding a very important and work-intensive job is rather valid, because while it should be perfectly acceptable for women not to have children, the reality is that many do *want* to, which means that it’s also very important for that to be compatible with having a high-profile career.

    At this point in history, this is hardly a new or revolutionary idea. In fact, it’s on a par with “slavery is immoral!” or “free the serfs!” I lament the fact that we live in a world where someone like Beinart can think this is a big, bright, new idea. But, that’s the perpetual childishness of our discourse when it comes to women’s and gender issues.

    I don’t know where you get your information that “*mothers* are underrepresented” compared to non-mothers–on the Supreme Court right now there is one mother and one non-mother. It all depends on where you’re looking and how you draw the lines, I suppose. For me, the greater problem is that there are only two women, and only three women total in 230 years of court history who have served.


  24. Pingback: And the Whig of Illusory Progress goes to. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.