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Obama's Feminist Touch

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Someday, when Americans have learned to live the true meaning of our creed, a Supreme Court nomination of a woman, a Latino, an African-American or any other variety of human being -- including a gay man or woman -- will provoke no comment or concern. Until then, we should applaud every step toward that future. The latest is President Barack Obama's choice of Elena Kagan to become the third female justice among the nine justices on the nation's highest court.

Beyond the inevitable and proper inquiries about the character and views of his latest nominee, Obama's decision tells us something important about him, too. Surely he appreciates her reputation as a conciliator who listens to all sides. He is probably reassured by the fact that the Senate easily confirmed her last year as solicitor general. But what this nomination reminds us is that he is not only the first African-American in the Oval Office, but the first president raised on feminist principles, as well.

As he stood next to Kagan in announcing her selection, Obama referred to her late mother, a public elementary school teacher who showed a special interest in bright little girls.

"I think she would relish, as do I," said the president, "the prospect of three women taking their seat on the nation's highest court for the first time in history -- a court that would be more inclusive, more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before."

Certain exceptions on the far right aside, the potential elevation of Kagan has been met with admirable restraint so far. Critics have noted that her written record is thin compared with previous nominees, especially for a former Harvard Law Review editor and Harvard Law School dean. At 50, she is relatively young, lacks extensive experience in a courtroom and has none as a judge (thanks to the Republican senators who refused to permit a hearing when President Clinton nominated her to the federal bench). The daughter of immigrant parents, a lawyer and a teacher, she was a highly talented girl who won admission to the finest colleges and universities, strictly on merit.

We may have reached a milestone when nobody complains that she was chosen as an affirmative action candidate. Perhaps any Democratic president would have nominated two women in succession to the court. Perhaps a Republican president will eventually do likewise. But it is nevertheless worth noting that this president did so now -- and that he grew up in a family of independent-minded feminist women who were unfazed by a culture of male domination.

Remember that his mother, Ann, though unlucky in marriage, was deeply persistent, adventurous and professional in her career as an anthropologist. This "girl from Kansas" brought her children with her to distant lands, and even left teenage Barry with his grandparents for a time while she worked abroad.

Recall also that his beloved grandmother Madelyn Dunham, whom he knew as "Toot," was a working woman who rose daily before dawn to arrive at the bank where she toiled for more than 20 years until, at long last, she won promotion to vice president. Owing to her gender, her advancement came far more slowly than she deserved -- and the fact that she earned more than her husband was often a source of friction at home.

Today, there is nothing unusual about a bank vice president -- or a peripatetic academic -- who happens to be female. Back when Obama was growing up, however, those two brave women shaped his outlook profoundly. We cannot yet know how three female justices will change the culture of the court and the jurisprudence of the nation. But the dream that Elena Kagan cherished and pursued just became a little easier for other girls to imagine.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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