What We’re Really Not Talking About When We Talk About Elena Kagan

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As the questions over Elena Kagan’s sexuality — the short hair, the cigar smoking, the softball playing — finally die down, what’s depressing is not that we indulged in this conjecture, it’s that we’re indulging in it yet again. Donna Shalala, Janet Reno, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor ... didn’t this same speculation swirl around these women, too, at some point or another? Is there not a pattern here?

Some of these women probably are gay. And some, one can fairly assume, are not. But what’s interesting — and depressingly clear — is that a disproportionate number of women who’ve made it to the tippy-top of the executive and judicial branches in the last three administrations have shared a similar profile­: unmarried, outspoken, partial to pantsuits, and child-free. Which would seem to suggest a few things, right? Like, No. 1, that it’s these women who survive the vetting process. And, No. 2, that something about being unmarried, outspoken, partial to pantsuits, and child-free has made it possible for them to get to the top in Washington ... or that getting to the top in Washington, at least for this generation of ceiling-crackers, has resulted in being single, outspoken, partial to pantsuits, and child-free.

First, the vetting. This can more or less be explained in four words: Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood. These two women were, respectively, Bill Clinton’s first and second choices for attorney general, and both were undone by their failure to pay their nannies’ Social Security taxes. When Clinton finally selected Janet Reno, who had neither a husband nor children, he unwittingly alighted on a formula for the ideal female nominee. The less complex her personal life, the less apt she is to have nanny problems or high-powered spouses with conflicts of interest or dubious ties (cf Geraldine Ferraro).

But second — and far more poignant — the less complex a woman’s personal life, the more apt she is to have poured her considerable energies into her professional life. Remember that offhand comment Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, made about Janet Napolitano when she was nominated to run the Department of Homeland Security? "Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, nineteen, twenty hours a day to it." Or how about the endless, tedious fuss that was made over Condi’s slip of the tongue, when she accidentally referred to W. as her husband? (Or, for that matter, the enduring image of her waking at 4:30 every morning to get in her 40 minutes of cardio.)

Whether being single and without children is the cause or the effect of so much hard work is hard to say (though we do know that until recently, the more education a woman had the less likely she was to marry, and it’s still true that never-­married women are more likely than married women to outearn men). But regardless of how these formidable women got there — whether it was by default or by design — Kagan, Rice, Reno, et al. all serve as painful reminders that women without families may have an easier time of it, still, when it comes to getting ahead. And that’s the dirty, undiscussed truth here. It’s not whether these women are gay.