When President Obama announced Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court this morning, he noted her previous important firsts: She was the first woman Dean of Harvard Law School and the first female Solicitor General of the United States. Huge achievements.
He also noted that his distinguished nominee's mother "had grown up at a time when women had few opportunities to pursue their ambitions and took great joy in watching Elena do so."
"I think," the president speculated, "her mother would have relished this moment."
True, all true, but not the whole story. I know this because, as a decades-long neighbor to the Kagans in our Upper West Side building, I have been watching Elena Kagan's career and progress toward a Supreme Court nomination with bated breath. I admired her, and I liked to vicariously enjoy the very accomplishments I'd dreamed of for myself in my distant youth.
As a high-school kid in a Philadelphia public school in the early 1960s, I was a smart, nerdy girl who cherished ambitions that were pretty much out of reach for girls then. I wanted to become a lawyer. But, really, that was just a path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. I'd researched some of my senior papers at Penn's law library and read and written about constitutional law. I'd read biographies of some of the great justices. A proto-feminist history teacher at my school, approving, my ambitions, gave me the names and numbers of three "lady lawyers" in town (one of whom would later become a judge) so I could interview them what it was like for a woman to be a lawyer. And they all agreed to see me. So rare was it in that time and place.
In college, I was lured away from the law by my love of literature, and I would eventually get a PhD in English lit rather than an LLB. But in that pursuit, I also met obstacles, professors who said things like, "Why would a pretty little thing like you want to go to graduate school when you could get married?" Perhaps the biggest obstacle was my mother, a daughter of immigrants with a high school education. She did take pride in my achievements, I knew. I could hear her on the phone bragging to her friends about my Phi Beta Kappa and my summa cum laude (once she'd found out what these meant). But to me, she said over and over with a pasted-on smile: "It's nice to get your PhD, but more important to get your M-R-S."
Elena Kagan's mother, Gloria, seemed very different. I often spoke with her over the years, coming and going in the lobby or in the elevator. Half a generation younger than my mother, she was college-educated, with an acerbic wit. She taught at Hunter elementary, the public school for New York City's smartest kids. She took a special interest in the progress of my older daughter Sara (who'd been born into our West End Avenue co-op) because Gloria thought she was "brilliant." Clearly, Gloria approved of brilliance in girls. Yet she rarely spoke to me about her own children, who were now grown and on their own.
Then came the day of Elena's appointment as first woman dean of Harvard Law. By this time, Gloria was widowed and in poor health (I was now a much younger widow), and she would typically answer my cordial "How are you?" with a roll of her eyes. "Well,... you know," she would say, communicating a world of complaints she could make -- that is, if she wanted to be a complainer. On this day I was standing and reading the clipping from the New York Times that someone (I thought Gloria, but possibly another proud neighbor) had posted above the mailboxes in the back lobby. Gloria suddenly emerged around the corner from the elevator, walking haltingly, her mailbox key in her hand.
"Gloria," I exclaimed, "you must be so proud!"
She nodded, unsmiling, and sighed in that stoic way that was now so familiar to me. "Yeah..." then a long silence..."but I really wish she were married."
Oh, Gloria, I thought, not you too! The first woman to be dean of Harvard Law School, and all you can say is you wish she were married! She just shrugged at my protests, and shuffled away with her mail.
Afterwards, I thought about it. Maybe I was wronging Gloria. Maybe she was not like my mother but a feminist who wanted her daughter to have it all, a brilliant, fulfilling career and the profound satisfactions of the kind of marriage she had, that I also had had. Surely, It's complicated.
I know nothing of Elena Kagan's private life, nor should I. I've met her only a couple of times, and I have no idea why she's made the choices she has. But I do know that it's still harder for a woman than a man to reach such pinnacles professionally without making bigger personal sacrifices.
When Gloria died a couple of years ago, I took the elevator down to her apartment where her family was receiving callers. In that awkward way of making conversation after a death, I told Elena how proud of her Gloria had been, how she'd posted the notice of her Harvard appointment in the lobby for the whole building to see. I withheld her mother's comment. But I wasn't fooling anybody. With an eye-roll and a tone so reminiscent of her mother, our newest nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States said dryly, "My mother only wanted me to get married."