When former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was vying for re-election, a focus study found her appearance on her television commercial too pretty for the majority of voters to have confidence in her governing. The solution? Air her image in black and white to downplay her good looks.
And when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, a consultant advised her to downplay her intelligence, so as not to make the inquisitive senators seem too dim by comparison. Her solution? Rely on her quick wit. Evidence of her funny bone was front and center at her hearings a year ago. Here are a few memorable examples:
When Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter asked Kagan about her views on cameras in the courtroom, he was completely upstaged by her humor. In his slow and somber speech Specter asked: “Well…you’ve already said you’re in favor of televising the court, but wouldn’t televising the court and information as to what the court does have an impact on the values which are reflected in the American people?”
Kagan began seriously, noting her intent to confer with the other justices on their views, and for the “greater understanding of the court” that televising would offer, and when Specter droned on about the topic longer, Kagan retorted to uproarious laughter: “It means I’d have to get my hair done more often, Senator Specter.”
At another lighthearted moment, Senator Dianne Fienstein oddly suggested that she and Kagan have “a little heart-to-heart,” with Kagan gaining eye contact with Feinstein and, recognizing the absurdity of a private exchange, teased “Just you and me?” Again, the crowd roared.
Senator Lindsey Graham, when questioning Kagan about her views on the war on terror, inquired where she was last Christmas Day, when a group of suspected terrorists attempted to blow up a plane en route to Detroit. She replied, to the delight of many: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Her nomination was contentious, and the committee’s Republicans cited many reasons for voting against Kagan: her lack of judicial experience; her decision, while dean at Harvard, to briefly bar military recruiters from the use of law school facilities; and her work as an aide to President Bill Clinton on matters like gun rights and the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. The partisan divide over the nomination illustrated the increasing political polarization of fights over Supreme Court nominees, but her sense of humor drew wide praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
It seems to be getting better for women in male dominated fields. In his some of his last-ever remarks on the Senate floor, Arlen Specter, who has witnessed the rise of women in politics during his own long career cast his vote for Kagan and said: “I am also impressed with the President’s nominating another woman. I think that is very salutary. When I came to the Senate, prior to the 1980 election, we only had one woman Senator, Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Now our body is much improved with the 17 women we now have in this body. I thought that was a desirable trait.” Well, that’s nice.
It will be even nicer when women running for office or being nominated to the Supreme Court can tout their good looks or intelligence without worry that either could be used against them. In the meantime, I’m in favor of using all the available means of persuasion to get women’s numbers to at least fifty percent in politics, law and anywhere else they want to be. And that’s no joke.