News of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court is certain progress for women’s equal representation at the highest levels of government. I was a high school senior when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court Justice, and I remember hearing about it from teachers and thinking that it is only right that women serve side by side with men. Of course, I still feel that way, only now, my feelings are stronger and backed by research.
If confirmed, Kagan would be the youngest justice on the court and notch up the number of women on the Supreme Court to three for the first time in history. The progress is glacial, to be sure, but women in areas previously unavailable to them is, nonetheless, progress. It is especially important for girls and young women to see women serving at the highest levels of government. Female politicians often claim that, in addition to providing important public service, their candidacies and terms in office offer positive models of female political leadership for women and girls. Some studies suggest this may be true. A few weeks ago I interviewed Linda Lingle, governor of Hawaii and she told me that she is especially careful about how she presents herself in public because she realizes that with so few women at the highest levels of government, all eyes are on her. It is unusual for male power figures to refer to their role model status, because men and boys do not need proof that powerful positions are open to them. And despite this encouraging announcement about Elena Kagan, the reality is that politics and the Supreme Court remain overwhelmingly male enterprises. That we can easily name all the women ever to serve on the Supreme Court –Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor–is evidence of this slow progress.
In my research about women and the United States presidency, I have found evidence to suggest that even symbolic bids for the presidency, like those made by Margaret Chase Smith in 1964 and Shirley Chisholm in 1972 have indeed paved the way for outsiders (any group not included previously) to consider bids for office. Margaret Chase Smith had a sense of this in 1964 when she said, “I would be pioneering the way for a woman in the future—to make the way easier for her to be elected President of the United States.” Shirley Chisholm described the role model effect of her campaign when she said: “…Whether or not the black people are politically sophisticated enough to be aware of the fact that my candidacy is not to be regarded as a candidacy where I can win the presidency at this moment, but a candidacy that is paving the way for people of other ethnic groups, including blacks, to run and perhaps win the office.”
Maybe at least in part shaped by sensitivity derived from being the father of two girls, President Obama wrote this message about his nomination of Elena Kagan: “Now, I look forward to the prospect of Elena taking her seat alongside Justice Ginsberg and Justice Sotomayor. For the first time, our nation’s highest court would include three women, ensuring a Court that would be more inclusive, more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before.”
Indeed to see more women at every level of government may encourage the belief for girls and young women still contemplating their career decisions.
Nichola D. Gutgold is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and author of several books that examine women’s communication skills in male dominated arenas, including Paving the Way for Madam President.