Should Next Supreme Court Nominee Be A Mom?

Daily Beast political writer Peter Beinart thinks so, and argues that President Obama would send a powerful message of support for young women who want families AND careers. He discusses his thoughts with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Every week we have our parenting conversations in this space. And of course this is a special week because Mother's Day is this coming Sunday. In a couple of minutes, we're actually going to focus on a dad, a dad who was facing a life-threatening illness. His response - he asked a group of his dearest friends to play a special role in his daughters' lives if he did not survive, to be a council of dads. Author Bruce Feiler is with us for that special conversation.

But, first, what better way to celebrate Mother's Day than with the appointment of a mom to the Supreme Court? Well, Supreme Court watchers have been floating a number of names for that next coveted vacancy. Peter Beinart recently wrote an opinion piece for the online news site The Daily Beast that argued that a mom should be nominated for the next Supreme Court vacancy and he's here with us to tell us more about it. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. PETER BEINART (Senior Political Writer, The Daily Beast): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So you argue that a woman with kids should be a priority for the Obama administration as they select their next Supreme Court vacancy. Why?

Mr. BEINART: Well, one of the things I pointed out in my piece is that if you look at women Cabinet nominees, the percentage who have kids is really quite low. It's much, much lower than it is for male Cabinet nominees. On the Supreme Court we've had a very small sample size. We've only had three women. But if you were to nominate a woman without kids, two of the three Supreme Court women would also not have kids, whereas all the men do.

Now, there's nothing - absolutely nothing wrong in the world with women without kids being appointed to high office. But I think the problem now it seems to me resides in the potential that the government is sending a signal to young women that in fact they're not going to be nominated if they have kids. And I think it would be useful to kind of knock that down.

MARTIN: There are three women who have served on the court to this point. And two of the three, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor both have children. The latest addition, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who of course many people lauded her appointment because she's the first Latina to serve, that had important representational value for a lot of people. She doesn't have children, but two of the three who've served do.

Mr. BEINART: That's right. But I think if you look at the women who have kids, they tend to be of an older generation, a generation - and these are generalizations, but, you know, in which women had their children younger. I think the problem is for women who would want to be appointed to these positions, let's say, in their late 40s perhaps or even in their early to mid-50s, of a generation when women by and large have kids later, often into their 30s, even into their mid to late 30s, that's, I think, the generational problem we're about to face.

MARTIN: Well, what about Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? She kind of fits that bridge generation if you want to call it that. She had her daughter Chelsea later by a lot of people's standards. But she has managed to have a very rich, full life. I think the question that a lot of people would argue is can you really say that women at the top levels of government, that mothers are not represented.

Mr. BEINART: Well, if you look at the Cabinet appointees in the last three administrations - Obama, Bush and Clinton - you find that only around one-third of the female Cabinet nominees have kids. That's compared to 80 percent of American women over the age of 40 who have kids, and compared to the overwhelming percentage of male Cabinet nominees who have kids. So, yes, there are women with children who are getting these jobs. But proportionately it's much, much less than the percentage of women in the population and certainly much less than the male Cabinet nominees.

MARTIN: You wrote this piece a couple of days ago. And I have to say this is one of those that was wildly passed around among a certain group of people. I think a lot of women journalists, I think, many of whom have kids who are trying to figure out, you know, how their lives work, I'm sure a lot of women professionals. I'm very interested to know what kind of reaction you got from the broader population because I'm sure there are a whole percentage of people who would say Peter Beinart, that is absolutely ridiculous.

Mr. BEINART: Well, it was mixed. I mean, there were some criticisms, but also some people who really liked it. You know, when you write a column sometimes you know a certain column is going to be incendiary. And I think there are reasonable counterarguments. I mean, I think the best counterargument would be, look, it really doesn't matter who you put on the Supreme Court. The day-to-day difficulties of having particularly small kids and trying to get - do that level job are simply as tough as they're going to be no matter who you have on the Supreme Court to look up to. I think that's a perfectly reasonable response.

But I do think that, you know, inspiration, role models matter. That's part of the reason that Sonia Sotomayor and Barack Obama are so important because people can see themselves in these people. And I do think we have to be careful that we do have enough role models of women with children to at least provide that sense of inspiration for women who are going through the very, very difficult time of trying to maintain a fast-paced career while they have kids as well.

MARTIN: And there are a number of people who argue that these representational issues are really entirely overblown, that the real issue should be judicial philosophy, judicial temperament, all of those things. What do you say to that?

Mr. BEINART: Well, look, obviously that's true. And to be honest, we are dealing with a universe of potential Obama picks, all of whom I am generally sympathetic to in terms of their liberal philosophy. So, were I to perceive a very big ideological difference between Diane Wood and Elena Kagan, for instance, I would be perfectly happy to say that that would trump. But I think you're dealing with the potential Obama picks, at least as they've been represented in the press, with people who I think by and large agree on the fundamentals that matter to me.

MARTIN: Do you think that Barack Obama could stand up and say, this is a mother of young children and we think in addition to all her other fine professional qualities that this is an attribute of her existence that is important for me to highlight and, in part, to be a role model? Do you think he could stand up and say that in public?

Mr. BEINART: Probably not. I think probably politically it would get him in hot water. You know, we have this strange, I think, political environment in which you're kind of allowed to say that someone's life experience is important. But the minute you actually detail what actually of their life experience gives them a particular insight into things, then you get pilloried. So, I would imagine it would probably be politically unwise for Barack Obama to say that but, you know, that's the joy of being a columnist, you don't have to worry about these things.

MARTIN: Peter Beinart is a senior political writer at The Daily Beast. He joined us from our bureau in New York. If you want to read the piece that we are talking about, we'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Peter Beinart, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BEINART: Thank you.

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