Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Are Mothers Better Than Everyone Else?

Do we need more mothers on the Supreme Court?

Are you persuaded that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is not gay, and that it should never have mattered anyway? Good, because we can now move on to her next supposed shortcoming.

"The Supreme Court needs more moms," proclaims the headline of Ann Gerhart's story in the Washington Post. I don't mind Gerhart making her case for this cause. We can debate that (though that's not what I'll do here). What I do mind is the way she marshals her arguments. Usually, it is not what she says that's wrong, but what she implies or doesn't say.

Let's start with her bottom line:

"Motherhood offers a one-word verifier. It signals a woman with an intensity of life experiences, jammed with joys and fears, unpredictability and intimacy, all outside the workplace. Much of the time, it's the opposite of being strategic and assiduously prepared."

Maybe so. But I don't like the apparent assumption that women without children do not have "an intensity of life experiences, jammed with joys and fears, unpredictability and intimacy, all outside the workplace" unless they can prove otherwise. By women without children, Gerhart seems to mean single women (as will become clear in the next example).

In her insistence that intense life experiences must happen outside of the workplace in order to count, Gerhart is perpetuating the work vs. life dichotomy that is so commonplace (as illustrated, for example, in the Shriver Report). Why not value work experiences that are so engaging that they, too, offer intensity and unpredictability?

Also, why frame careful preparation as a bad thing, and (if you are advocating for mothers) as something that "much of the time" is not characteristic of mothers?

Now check this out. Referring to mothers who have served on the Supreme Court, Gerhart says:

"Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the bench in 1981 and 1993, respectively, benefited from high-achieving husbands who held the Bible for them as they were sworn in, supported their aspirations and sacrificed for their careers."

True, O'Connor and Ginsburg are mothers, but having a husband is not part of the definition of motherhood. At least 9.9 million women are single mothers (a number that's been increasing).

Also, I think a woman needs a husband to hold the Bible like a fish needs a bicycle.

More seriously, Gerhart leaves the impression that having a husband is solely a plus. When Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down from the Court to care for her ailing husband, I wished she were single so she would have served longer. With apologies to my Italian compadres, I'd prefer a Court with more O'Connor's and fewer Alito's. It's a preference that has nothing to do with ethnicity.

Here's a stereotype that readers may find all too familiar:

"In saying he wants justices who have ‘heart' and ‘empathy,' and who understand ‘how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives,' Obama has invited us to ask who has a life outside work and who doesn't."

Guess whom Gerhart sees as not having a life?

(Do you think that Dahlia Lithwick and Hanna Rosin were floating the same no-life implication over at Slate when they said this: "When they get married and have children, women's pay shrinks. That means the only women who can keep up with men are the ones who work very hard, and they are often divorced or unmarried and childless"? I'm not sure.)

This next statement may be true, but I bet it will be read as suggesting something that is not true:

"It seems sensible to imagine that a woman who has juggled it all -- the full-time job, the kids, the housework, the aging parents -- has a deeper and more instinctual grasp of the challenges facing similar women."

The misleading implication is that it is the married women with children who are doing more than their share of caring for aging parents. They are not. Single people are.

The theme of the devoted, caring mothers (in contrast to what - the self-centered singles who have nothing to do but play?) continues with this:

"The research on mothers in the workplace focuses on equity, and the conclusions remain dismaying: greater discrimination against mothers than women in general, and a 5 percent wage penalty per child... ‘So Elena Kagan might have had a career advantage,' Eagly suggests, and Sotomayor, too, ‘not merely in terms of not devoting time to motherhood, but not being subject to the motherhood penalty.'"

The motherhood penalty in wages is real and it is abhorrent. But it is not the only workplace pay inequity. Single men earn about 26% less than married men for the same work. There are other penalties, too, as when bosses and co-workers assume that the single workers (whether men or women) can stay late to cover for their married colleagues or take whatever vacation time is left after the marrieds have chosen first.

Mothering is not the only care-work that adults do. People without children (single or otherwise) sometimes care for friends, siblings, nieces, nephews, neighbors, and more. The difference is that such caring is rarely acknowledged. It is also not covered. The Family and Medical Leave Act is not for friends or siblings or nieces or nephews or neighbors.

I'll end where Gerhart's started:

"...in selecting Kagan, Obama ensured that one key demographic would actually lose representation on the court, compared with its membership just a few years ago: mothers, a category in which 80 percent of American women eventually land."

Gerhart is correct that 80% of American women will eventually land in the mother category. (It's a number that's been decreasing over the years.) But nearly 100% of American adults, women and men, will land in the single category at some point in their lives. Some will start there and stay there, and others will land there over and over again. On the average, Americans spend more years of their lives unmarried than married. So if Gerhart is going to make an argument based on the number of people who are ever going to land in a particular category, then she should be pushing for more single men as Supremes. With David Souter gone, they are the ones who are totally unrepresented now.

[Thanks to G. M. Holbrook for the tip about the Post story.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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