Obama’s obligation…

With the news of Justice David Souter’s decision to step down from the Supreme Court, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. And given that it seems likely that Obama will also have the opportunity to replace Ruth Ginsburg on the court, questions of the proper composition of the nation’s highest judicial authority ...

586199_090501_court2.jpg
586199_090501_court2.jpg

With the news of Justice David Souter's decision to step down from the Supreme Court, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. And given that it seems likely that Obama will also have the opportunity to replace Ruth Ginsburg on the court, questions of the proper composition of the nation's highest judicial authority have gained even greater urgency.

But before we address this, we need to stop, light a candle, say a prayer, reflect in a manner consistent with your own spiritual beliefs and thank an Even Higher Authority that Barack Obama won the election and that we are not going to have a selection process featuring Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the vaguely unhinged characters on the Republican right. These extremists, whose beliefs are built around a core paradox that they seek to limit the power of government in all areas except where it concerns a woman's reproductive system, the right of same sex couples to marry or the ability to end the lives of criminals, will no doubt attempt to add their voice to the coming selection discussion but fortunately they will do so as outsiders with less political power than they have had at any time in almost three decades. Thus a great moment of opportunity exists to right an age-old wrong.

With the news of Justice David Souter’s decision to step down from the Supreme Court, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. And given that it seems likely that Obama will also have the opportunity to replace Ruth Ginsburg on the court, questions of the proper composition of the nation’s highest judicial authority have gained even greater urgency.

But before we address this, we need to stop, light a candle, say a prayer, reflect in a manner consistent with your own spiritual beliefs and thank an Even Higher Authority that Barack Obama won the election and that we are not going to have a selection process featuring Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the vaguely unhinged characters on the Republican right. These extremists, whose beliefs are built around a core paradox that they seek to limit the power of government in all areas except where it concerns a woman’s reproductive system, the right of same sex couples to marry or the ability to end the lives of criminals, will no doubt attempt to add their voice to the coming selection discussion but fortunately they will do so as outsiders with less political power than they have had at any time in almost three decades. Thus a great moment of opportunity exists to right an age-old wrong.

Insta-analysis of what Obama will do has focused on the likelihood that he will name a woman or a Hispanic to the Souter post. The political arithmetic of this makes sense. It also makes sense in terms of social justice and the need to have a court that reflects the American people over whom they have so much say. 

However well intentioned this argument is, it does not go far enough. If Obama is the change agent, constitutional scholar, and activist for social justice he aspires to be, then he should adopt the principle that not only should Souter be replaced by a woman, so too should be Ginsburg whenever she might leave…and so too should be the next two or three others to depart the court. It is just fundamentally wrong that the majority population of the United States should be so under-represented on the court. 

In fact, I would argue that Obama and those around him have been far too conventional and willing to accept traditional prescriptions for female representation in high offices, approaches in which women are treated and represented as though they were a minority in American society. Look at the Obama cabinet — four women in traditional cabinet slots plus two others, Susan Rice at the UN and Lisa Jackson at the EPA who have been elevated to cabinet status. That’s six, more than the initial female appointments for past presidents, but it is six out of 20. It is simply not plausible that four other qualified women could be found and the President could not have adopted what should always be the standard, equal representation in the government by gender. (I remember when Chile’s trail-blazing President Michelle Bachelet announced her commitment to what should be the norm — a half-male, half-female candidate, even liberal men I knew in that country grumbled that there could not be found 10 qualified women for the jobs in question. Ten out of 16 million Chileans? Seriously? She accomplished the goal with ease and in so doing, sent an important example for the region.)

Not that women fair well in the global power structure generally. When I completed my book Superclass, having looked at the 6,000 or so most powerful people in the world, the single fact that leapt out most disturbingly to me was that women made up less than six percent of this group of top political, business, military, religious, and academic leaders. What was even more surprising to me was how little outrage about this fact among even the few women on the group. The story is repeated in leadership segment after leadership segment. Try to think of a woman who leads a major international religious group. Fifteen women head Fortune 500 companies. There are fewer than 60 women generals or admirals in the U.S. military, only one with four star rank. There are 92 women in Congress, 17 percent of the total membership. This number is consistent with the level of representation for women in parliaments worldwide. That means that the world’s minority population, men, get over four times the votes of the world’s majority population, women. We’ve seen what men can do with that kind of power…which should only add to the urgency with which we seek to immediately and fully redress this grotesque imbalance. One of the few places where there is a hint of equity: women head half of the Ivy League’s eight universities. Perhaps the earlier discussion on this site about the fading relevance of academics to influence important policy issues was too narrowly focused on foreign policy issues. Clearly, these universities offer an example to be emulated. 

Earlier this week, I attended a banquet for the scholarship fund of Barnard College. I had the pleasure of being hosted by Barnard’s president Debora Spar. Debora is a remarkable woman, a wonderful writer of really great books (for example: Ruling the Waves and The Baby Business), a spectacular teacher, and a thoughtful commentator on issues like those being discussed here (see her great Washington Post op-ed, “One Gender’s Crash” on whether it might have made a difference during the recent unpleasantness had Wall Street had more institutions led by women). But in this room, she was simply a great example and energized, articulate leader of the rest of the group, accomplished, extraordinary women who had pioneered in leadership roles on Wall Street, in the media, in law, in science and in countless other pursuits. I was overwhelmed by the diversity and scope of their accomplishments but also by the fact that we live in a society in which it is not just desirable but still essential that we have women’s colleges in order to help train female leaders to cope with a world that still does not fully embrace the ideas of justice and equity that (often male) writers have touted as our ideals, inscribed on our buildings but very often failed to translate into action. I am very proud one of my two brilliant daughters will be going to Barnard this fall (just as I am surpassingly proud of her Middlebury sister), but I am also hopeful that we are moving toward one of those points of inflection at which a wrong that extends back to the very first moments of history is undone. Not just because I am a father of daughters or husband of a smart accomplished wife or son of one of that first generation of women who really went out into the workplace and tried to forge big changes…but because I am all of these things…and also because I have been paying enough attention to know what alternative approaches have produced.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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