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FROM THE ISSUE | SUMMER 2010

Elena Kagan: The Fourth in 425 Years

By Donna Brazile

Elena Kagan in 2008. Photo from Flickr user dseals. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0It took us almost 200 years as a country to get the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, almost 30 years later, we will soon have three women serving together—two named by President Barack Obama in just two years. That’s remarkable—and the fact that the latest nominee is such an extraordinary candidate makes the news even better.

Elena Kagan has won praise from liberals and conservatives—even Laura Bush told Fox News that having another woman on the court “does make a difference”—since Obama nominated her, and that’s no surprise, given that she is one of the top legal minds in the country. She is a woman of firsts: first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law and first woman to serve as solicitor general. She was also associate White House counsel and then director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Bill Clinton. She taught at the University of Chicago Law School, and she served Justice Thurgood Marshall as his law clerk.

Kagan has one of the most distinguished résumés of anyone ever nominated to the Supreme Court.

Throughout her many careers, she has excelled, amply demonstrating her lifelong commitment to public service. I know firsthand the strength of Kagan’s character; she is an inspiration to me. She’s always been willing to provide sound advice after thinking through tough issues, such as affirmative action or pay equity for women—issues she has been intimately involved in helping to shape into national policy.

I’ve been in Washington a long time, and there’s nothing quite like the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice. In a town where everything takes months, this is the kind of fight that’s won or lost in the first few days. And opposition forces tried everything against Kagan: They attacked her credibility, her credentials, her character. They’ve criticized her work as a young clerk for Justice Marshall, and some hoped that speculation about her sexual orientation (she plays softball!!!) would derail her confirmation.

But they were grasping at straws and employing groundless accusations—such as that from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that Kagan had claimed the government has the right to ban books (she said the opposite).

Kagan’s best asset confirmation-wise turned out to be that she has never been on the bench and thus doesn’t have decisions that can be nitpicked. Her best asset as a Supreme Court justice will be her knowledge of some of the most contentious and divisive policy issues of our times. She has been on the front lines fighting for ordinary citizens and remains deeply passionate about ensuring “equal justice under the law.”

Kagan’s confirmation makes her the fourth woman to serve on the Supreme Court, which means that in just two years President Barack Obama will have appointed half of the women justices in U.S. history. Sad to think it’s taken so long, but glad to know we’re finally making progress.

DONNA BRAZILE is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster; 2004).

Excerpted from Donna Brazile’s Backtalk column in the Summer issue of Ms. Read the rest in the summer issue of Ms., available on newsstands August 10, or direct to your doorstep if you join the Ms. community.

Elena Kagan in 2008. Photo from Flickr user dseals. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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