With the addition of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the number of women to serve since the court’s inception in 1790 notches up to four. What is more significant than the number, however, is evidence that the speaking styles and career trajectories of these women show that there are less obstacles facing women entering fields once only occupied by men. For example, both Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not find work as lawyers after graduating law school. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan seemed to find easy (and excellent) opportunities to use their legal education.
After graduating from Princeton and attending Oxford, and Harvard Law School, the newest justice Elena Kagan completed federal Court of Appeals and Supreme Court clerkships. She began her career as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, leaving to serve as an Associate White House Counsel and later as policy adviser under President Bill Clinton. After a nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which expired without action, she became a professor at Harvard Law School and then became dean. Her relaxed and humorous answers at her confirmation hearings suggest an ease with herself, the mostly male questioners and her intellect. By contrast, the confirmation hearings of Ruth Bader Ginsburg demonstrate the extreme caution, seriousness of self and situation and sense on the part of Ginsburg that there was no room for flippant or casual exchanges. A look at Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing demonstrates the cautious responses. Before her, Sandra Day O’Connor’s confirmation hearings show a deliberative and careful demeanor and even a nod to the “conduct” of women who went before her as leaders. During her confirmation, that Kagan remarked about her need to get her hair done more (if confirmed) her Chinese food consumption on Christmas (“you know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant”), tell more than the answers themselves. Similarly, Sonia Sotomayor felt comfortable enough to joke during her confirmation hearing and spoke early and often once confirmed, something new justices, even male, have resisted. While some of these contrasts may simply be a matter of style, I think they reveal more than that. They signal that women, though still low in numbers, are expressing themselves with more ease and self-assurance and their own unscripted, even relaxed style at the highest level of power.