The Marriage Thing
| May 14, 2010
That the sexual identity of the Supreme Court nominee might be regarded as anyone’s business but her own strikes the author, lead plaintiff in the 1974 women’s discrimination law suit against the New York Times, as a sad anachronism.
Happily, Elena Kagan can take care of herself, without a doubt. But all this crazy stuff about her sexuality on the online rumor factory makes my stomach ache for our lack of progress.
Thirty years ago I was running for president of the New York Local of my union, the Newspaper Guild. A coworker at the New York Times who loathed me wrote to the union paper to denounce my candidacy. All Wade wants to do, he said in effect, is to travel to union meetings with her friend Joan Cook. Because the incumbent union officers didn’t like me much either, they printed the letter as if it contained nothing underhanded.
By the rules, I was allowed a reply. At the end of the 1970s, this presented a problem. It was impossible to assert simply that we were not lesbians. That would accept the innuendo that lesbians should be outcasts in the union movement. It would have conflicted with Joan’s and my beliefs. Our record on equal opportunity was excellent: we and our allies had been leaders in the sex-discrimination suit all women employees brought against the Times in 1974. Our federally certified class of almost 600 women included cafeteria workers, reporters, cleaning women, copy carriers, classified-ad takers, and yes, widows, lesbians, single mothers, women with multiple divorces and a couple of women involved in affairs with members of the responding class—the management.
The four of us, Joan, her husband, Gerry, my husband, Jim, and I, wrestled with it. We bobbed and weaved. Yes, we enjoy traveling, we finally wrote, and fortunately our husbands get along well too. I cringe today, but that was the state of the art at the end of what some were calling “the women’s decade.” But now, sadly, I see Kagan’s friends leaping in to speak of the men she dated and other matters not pertinent to her judicial expertise. I feel mired in the 1970s sludge. And it occurs to me, as it did when I was in the same pinch, the marriage thing, for better or for worse, is a token that may get you through the turnstile.
No government position was at stake, but when the Times hired me, in 1956, I was the first woman in the paper’s 100-year history to hold the job title of copy editor. I underwent a full medical exam by a physician, I was vetted by psychiatrists, amateur and professional, as well as editors of all sorts. They apparently wanted to be sure I was “well adjusted” and not likely to be a sexual marauder in an all-male bastion, the night newsroom. Although at some other workplaces at the time, employers grilled married women applicants about whether they intended to leave work to have a baby, I sensed in the Times’s questions that a husband and a child at home created a benign picture, like the stage set for Betty Crocker or Elsie the Cow.
Don’t get me wrong: our marriage was a personal decision, not a job credential. But the climate in those days directed middle-class young women toward marriage, which as side effect foreclosed on several questions, including whether attending a women’s college was a marker for a lesbian, an “old maid” or a man-hater. Marriage, in addition to providing an ally and friend, positioned one to take some difficult steps and avoid some useless fights. I have lesbian contemporaries who in their years in the closet spent time married to men and, while I have never asked them why, I suspect the hope to avoid further public “otherness” was a cause.
Kagan represents a new generation. She apparently didn’t find someone she wanted to marry and heeded the caveat: Any girl can marry if she sets her standards low enough. So now, unlike Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor—who had a marriage that broke up—Kagan faces the arrows of bloggers without the shield of the marriage thing.
The 1977 movie “The Turning Point” struck me forcefully. The friend who does not marry goes on to become a famed ballerina. The friend who marries ends up as a small-town dancing school teacher, housewife and mother. She got pregnant too soon. Her husband, also a dancer, wanted to demonstrate to the world that he was not gay, and his wife’s stage career paid the price. The Capezios may be on the other feet, but it’s the marriage thing all over again.
I am glad that Kagan is tough and used to problems, but no one deserves this one anymore.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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