Elena Kagan Hits the (Really) BigTime

Dear Readers,

On the occasion of Elena Kagan’s presumptive confirmation to the Supreme Court, http://http//www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?abbr=daily2_&page=NewsArticle&id=25389&security=1201&news_iv_ctrl=-1, I’m posting my piece, “The Supremes, and We’re Not Talking Motown Here,” which appeared in the Huffington Post and in RH Reality Check earlier this summer.

Since I first posted this piece, I’ve received a whole lot of interesting comments–a lot of people care a whole lot about our Supreme Court, and that’s a wonderful thing: Whoever said civic engagement has diminshed, that we’re “bowling alone” (these days) isn’t part of (our) crowd. And I, for one, am very grateful for knowing that.

A great first-2010-August-weekend to all.



So, maybe, there’s yet another big difference between the sexes: While nice boys finish last, nice girls finish first.

Just look at today’s news: I ask you, what’s a bigger achievement than being selected as a Supreme Court Justice? Yup, just pause, and think for a moment about those words, “supreme” and “justice,” next to your name. How cool would that be?

In his first year in office, President Obama has had the amazing good fortune to get two Supreme Court picks. In both cases, he picked a girl from New York. [How cool is that, for a(nother) girl from New York: me. Let me count the ways. But keep reading; it’s not all that good.]

OK, so let’s be serious here. Do you see a pattern here? And, this time, I’m not talking about the one in which all the brilliant New York girls are being picked for starring roles.

The pattern is: Make sure you’re a really nice girl, first and foremost.

What’s that, you ask?

Well, taking a page from the Sonia Sotomayor/Elena Kagan, New York, nice girl (no, “New York” and “nice” is not an oxymoron) playbook, it’s study really hard; get really good grades; go to Princeton (both); go to Harvard Law (Elena), or go to Yale Law (Sonia); have important male mentors; stay single as you’re making your way up the career ladder, so no husband’s choices get in your way, or put you in a bad light; well, you get the drift.

In fact, these two women who finished first: Elena, the one about to have “supreme” and “justice” next to her name, and Sonia, the one who already has it, are nice girls, in all the ways that actually matter, if you want to have words like “supreme” or “justice” next to your name.

In fact, these days, as Sonia and Elena have now proved, you can even safely forget the baby-making and the finding a nice guy, or even a(nother) nice girl (keep reading on the latter point). Just don’t forget to study hard, and never, never talk out-of-turn.

And, do forget, for sure, that old saw, which used to make some of us feel better: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” http://thinkexist.com/quotation/well-behaved_women_rarely_make/180481.html.
In fact, those badly behaved women, and, believe me, I know where-of I speak, only make history of the upset-the-apple-cart kind, not the kind that leads to “supreme” and “justice” next to one’s name.

In sum, these two New York nice girls, just like those two nice Illinois girls, Michelle Obama (Harvard Law) and Hillary Clinton, she of the when it came right down to it I did stand by my man school, (Yale Law), have never met a test they couldn’t ace, and, well, cooking or housekeeping, the used-to-be sine qua non of nice girls; well, there’s help for that: Just ask Michelle or Hillary.

On the personal front, Sonia Sotomayor seems kind of like Valerie Jarrett (Michigan Law, daughter at Harvard Law). While married early-on, there was no husband around during the formative years of her career, when the difficult decisions needed to be made, when one’s decisions might have required consideration of the desires of another ambitious adult.

On the other hand, Elena Kagan has never married, and, at least as far as we know so far, she hasn’t had any long-term intimate relationship, (male or female), requiring accommodation to that person’s career or personal goals.

And, doubly lucky for Elena Kagan (we have made some real progress here), the White House seems to be comfortable handling, albeit somewhat defensively, the assertions that the President may have just nominated a LESBIAN to the SUPREME COURT! [It really is delicious when you think about it.]

So, what’s my point in all this, you ask? Well, my point is it’s that gosh-darned “nina modela” thing, that “nice girl”/model child syndrome one more sickening time.

So, that’s ridiculous, you say? It’s ridiculous to feel bad when a woman finished first–when lord knows not many women, of any kind, finish first anywhere, much less in the run-up to the Supreme Court?

Well, it’s not ridiculous, I say, because it’s the bad girls, like me, who make these good (nice) girls’ dreams come true. And, to add insult to injury, these nice girls can maybe even be lesbians!

We screamed, and scream; we hollered, and holler. And what do we get? Somebody’s back, as they shut the door in our face(s). “She’s a pistol,” they say, and not with admiration.

What do they get? The Supreme Court (Elena and Sonia), or the West Wing (Valerie), or, for that matter, and not so bad either, the East Wing (Michelle and Hillary).

Fact is, Elena stood silent, while I screamed. Fact is, Elena was “canny,” while I was fervent. Fact is, Elena was a coalition-builder, while I was an advocate. Fact is, Elena didn’t express her political views, while I did nothing but. Fact is, Elena wrote little, while I wrote untold speeches and press releases, all with the same basic headline: We (women) want more. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/us/politics/10kagan.html

[NOTE: I’m using myself as a stand-in for those women lawyers who will
never be considered for “supreme” and “justice” next to their names. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t run this race.]

Is this ironic, or what? This is Elena, the putative lesbian, we’re talking about. This is Elena, who, odds-are, will be doing nothing but express her opinions for the next forty or so years, if her’s and the President’s good luck continue, and just because she kept her mouth shut in the early rounds. It’s not only ironic, it’s bewildering.

Ironic? Let me count the ways.

–Let others do the political talking, so you don’t have any politically-incorrect YouTube videos.

–Let others do the writing, so you don’t have any controversial law review articles.

–Let others interrupt their careers to follow a spouse, or pay for a spouse’s education, while you forge ahead in line.

–Let others fight for women’s reproductive rights, while you benefit from that fight.

–Let others advocate for women as a group, while you advocate for yourself.

Yes, all this said, I’m still very happy that a(nother) non-Protestant (more progress, here) woman from New York is going to be a Supreme Court Justice. That makes the Supremes, in case you’re counting, the (really cool, not Motown, but Big Apple) Supremes: Ruth, Sonia, and Elena.

But I’m not that happy: In fact, as I think about it, I think I was happier when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court, a woman who found a way to be a women’s advocate, and a wife, and a mother, as well as a way to be a brilliant lawyer and judge, and, finally, yes (!), a Supreme.

And, as I think about it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be a better role model for today’s young women than soon-to-be Justice Kagan or now Justice Sotomayor. For, unlike Kagan and Sotomayor, Justice Ginsburg has
lived the life that most women live, and yet she found a way to be a Supreme, notwithstanding.

“There’s a New Princess in Town”

This morning, I got to check-out Sunday’s edition of USA Weekend, an insert in the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as in another one of my favorite weekend papers, The Herald- Palladium. [If I’m reading it, that means I’m in beautiful Southwest Michigan. The very thought of that makes me very happy.]

The cover story? “Meet Disney’s First Black PRINCESS.” [All-caps’-type was theirs. “PRINCESS” was in a bright red font.]

The headline of the story? “There’s a New Princess in Town.” [“Princess” in blue type, this time.]

And who is that princess, but Anika Noni Rose, star of Dreamgirls, and, most recently, of the smash–and (my) girlfriends’ favorite–the HBO series: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Disney’s choice of Anika Noni Rose made me very happy.

Anika Noni Rose is very, very smart, funny, beautiful, intense, and sensitive. She’s fit, in ever way, to be a queen, much less just a princess.

One has to wonder why it took until 2009 for Disney to select its “first black princess,” though, upon a moment’s reflection, it’s obvious: “Black (wasn’t) beautiful,” in the eyes of too, too many, for hundreds of years, too-too-long.

But, today, Michelle Obama, an African-American woman from the South Side of Chicago, is the First Lady, (and what are “first ladies,” after all, but royalty), living in the White House, by many lights the most important house in the world, a palace, if you will.

And, besides, she sure is princess-like–white ballgown, diamond bracelets, beautiful hair, and all.

So, I go to some of Ms. Rose’s comments in the USA Weekend story:

“It’s just so magnificent [to be playing the “first black Disney princess”]….It’s wonderful to be a part of this moment, the recognition of beauty outside of what has been the standard blond hair and blue eyes.”

Speaking of “standard blond hair and blue eyes,” I’ve never had either, either, but I sure do remember trying.

I remember, waaaay too vividly, the blond-hair-dye, kinky-hair-straightener, orange-juice-cans-as-hair-rollers of my teenage years. I remember trying, desperately, to get that “standard blond hair” you had to have, if you were ever going to have a shot at being a princess. [And we didn’t even dream about being queens.]

That was 40 years ago. Think of how many American girls with kinky brown hair have tried that horrible combo since then.

So, here’s to the new generation of American female royalty: Michelle, Anika, Anika’s fabulous co-stars, Jennifer Hudson, Jill Scott and Beyonce Knowles, and to every other American girl–African-American, Jewish, or otherwise–born with kinky brown hair.






Grrrl Power: Jan, Valerie, Tina, Amy and 1900 “Grrrlfriends”

Monday was Jan Schakowsky’s (D.,IL, U.S. House of Representatives, www.janschakowsky.org) annual “Power Lunch,” in today’s lingo, a real “grrrl power” gathering.

Equally importantly, it was a truly joyous opportunity for Jan’s legions of fans to thank her for being such a great leader of women.

This year, Jan’s featured speakers were “girlfriends” Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen, talking about life and work in the White House for our (maybe-not-the-first; see below) feminist President.

Both Valerie and Tina were eloquent, funny, informative and inspirational. Knowing them, I expected nothing less, but it was particularly inspiring when Valerie closed by inviting all of us to think about new ways to be of service in this time of great need.[Keep reading, and you’ll see why Valerie’s comments were so apt on this particular day.]

Another guest of Jan’s was U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D.,MN, www.amyklobuchar.com), a girlfriend of mine since her law school years here in Chicago with my husband. I was so pleased to invite Amy to join Jan’s celebration this year–when so much that is so wonderful, for women all over the world, has been made possible by the women of Chicago. I think Amy confirmed her understanding of this when she said: “Thanks for giving (the rest of) us Michelle Obama’s husband.”

This great day began on an inspirational note, when I read the do-not-miss column below about one of our great, great grandmothers, who also worked in the White House. As I read, I realized that, but for the courage she displayed, over 75 years ago, we might not have been able to celebrate quite so gloriously at our lunch.

Here is the article from womensenews.org

New Deal Began With Her, That Chilly Night in 1933
By Kirstin Downey, WeNews correspondent

(WOMENSENEWS)–“On a chilly February night in 1933, a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on East 65th Street in New York City. She clutched a scrap of paper with hastily written notes. Finally ushered into his study, the woman brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently. They bantered casually for a while, as was their style, then she turned serious, her dark, luminous eyes holding his gaze.

“He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue.

“She ticked off the items: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance. She watched his eyes to make sure he was paying attention and understood the implications of each demand. She braced for his response, knowing that he often chose political expediency over idealism and was capable of callousness, even cruelty.

“The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws. To succeed, she would have to overcome opposition from the courts, business, labor unions, conservatives.

“‘Nothing Like This Before’

“‘Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States before,’she said. You know that, don’t you?’

“The man sat across from her in his wheelchair amid the clutter of boxes and rumpled rugs. Soon, he would head to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States. He would inherit the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. The stock market had collapsed, rendering investments valueless. Banks were shutting down, stripping people of their lifetime savings. About a third of workers were unemployed; wages were falling; tens of thousands were homeless. Real estate prices had plummeted and millions of homeowners faced foreclosure.

“His choice of labor secretary would be one of his most important early decisions. His nominee must understand economic and employment issues, but be equally effective as a coalition builder.

“He was a handsome man, with aquiline features, and he studied the plain, matronly woman sitting before him. No one was more qualified for the job. She knew as much about labor law and administration as anyone in the country. He’d known her for more than 20 years, the last four in Albany, where she had worked at his side. He trusted her and knew she would never betray him.

“But placing a woman in the labor secretary’s job would expose him to criticism and ridicule. Her list of proposals would stir heated opposition, even among his loyal supporters. The eight-hour day was a standard plank of the Socialist Party; unemployment insurance seemed laughably improbable; direct aid to the unemployed would threaten his campaign pledge of a balanced budget.

“He said he would back her.

“Life-Long Preparation

“It was a job she had prepared for all her life. She had changed her name, her appearance, even her stated age to make herself a more effective labor advocate. She had studied how men think so she could better succeed in a man’s world. She had spent decades building crucial alliances.

“Still, she told the president-elect that she needed time to make her decision. The next day she visited her husband, a patient in a sanitarium. He was having a good day and he understood when she told him about the job offer. His first impulse was to fret for himself, asking her how this new job might affect him. When she assured him that he could remain where he was and that her weekend visits would continue, he gave his permission.

“That night in bed, the woman cried in deep, wailing sobs that frightened her teenage daughter. She knew the job would change her life forever. She would open herself to constant media scrutiny, harsh judgment from her peers and public criticism for doing a job a woman had never done before. Yet she knew she must accept the offer. As her grandmother had told her, whenever a door opened to you, you had no choice but to walk through it.

“The next day she called Franklin Roosevelt and accepted the offer.

“Frances Perkins would become the nation’s first female secretary of labor.”

Kirstin Downey is the author of a new book, “The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, The Woman Behind the New Deal,” Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009. She was formerly a staff writer at the Washington Post, covering economics and workplace issues.


“A Woman’s Nation,” Take Two: Philanthropy’s (Community) Organizing Rules, for Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History

In a recent column, Gara LaMarche, the head of The Atlantic Philanthropies, (“dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people,” www.atlanticphilanthropies.org), discussed a visit with Dick Boone.

Dick was the last director of the Field Foundation, but one of the first foundation directors to make social change a criterion for his grantmaking. Indeed, Mr. LaMarche noted that Dick was a mentor to many of us active today in promoting social justice and equal rights.

Whether as foundation executives, fundraisers, organizational or business executives, or civic leaders–and in large part due to Dick’s tutelage–many of Dick’s students seek to mobilize today’s philanthropy to advance social justice and equality.

Mr. LaMarche observed that Dick began his social justice work in the South-side-Chicago Woodlawn neighborhood, under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky. Yes, it was on the South Side of Chicago that Dick (also) learned the principles of community organizing.

Below, I’ve listed some of those principles because I think they are applicable to building Maria Shriver’s “woman’s nation,” a task for philanthropy too.

You’ll note that many of these “rules for radicals,” as Alinsky termed them, echo an old feminist saw: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” And, yes, I’m betting that in their private moments, if not in their public ones, Maria, Condi, Hillary, and, yes, even Michelle, would witness to this truth. And it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they can.

Here are these rules of engagement:

1) Power is not only what you have, but what [others] think you have.
2) Never go outside the experience of your people (your constituents, whether actual because you are a public official, or metaphorical because you are otherwise a leader).
3) Wherever possible, go outside of the experience of the [opposition].
4) Make the [opposition] live up to [its] own book of rules.
5) Keep the pressure on.
6) The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
7) Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.