The XX Factor

Is Three the Magic Number for Women on the Supreme Court?

From Ann Gerhart in the Washington Post , a thoughtful piece over the weekend about how much it matters that there are mothers on the Supreme Court, as opposed to women in general. We’ve already had Round 1 on this topic from Peter Beinart , skewered by Kate Harding , who pointed out that, given how hard it is to get to the top of the legal profession as a working mother, it’s hardly surprising that Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor don’t have traditional nuclear families. Now Ann asks about the nomination of Kagan, non-mother: “For women and their climb toward social and economic parity, is this a sign of progress or a setback? And for the country and its Constitution, would more mothers on the bench change the way the laws of the land are interpreted?”

There’s no clear answer to the second question-no research on whether mothers interpret the law differently from women who aren’t mothers. As Ann asks, who wants to throw that fuel on the fire of the mommy wars? In general, the distinction between women who are mothers and women who aren’t seems both telling and useless. Yes, raising kids is its own kind of intense life experience; on the other hand, there are so many ways to be a caregiver, so many different kinds of family (and friends) to pour your time and heart into. In this era of involved fatherhood, or so we hope, another dividing line is between two-parent households in which both parents work full-time or close to it, and the more traditional gendered arrangement.

Ann also asks whether three is a kind of magic number for women on the Supreme Court. The argument is that 33 percent is a real threshold for change. It comes from Dina Refki, director of SUNY-Albany’s Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, who says that once you have that critical mass, internal dynamics start to shift. Ann points out that if Kagan is confirmed, “The number of women on the Supreme Court will hit that “change threshold” of 33 percent for the first time in its history.” I’d rather think about the possibilities of that than the precise value of diaper changing. Laura Bush gave Kagan a surprise thumbs up for getting to three, too.

Photograph of Elena Kagan and Dianne Feinstein by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.