Kagan: Are you Experienced?

Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?  sung in Hendrix’s smoky voice, keeps floating around in my head when I think of Elena Kagan. Huh? Well, the old “are you experienced” argument is being flung out there against her. Excuse me? The first female dean of Harvard Law School is inexperienced?  

So what’s behind the inexperienced argument?   Virginia Valiant’s work on gender schemas, that is unconscious assumption we make about men and women, sheds some light. One assumption is that women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise, and the opposite holds true for men, So right off the bat women are fighting a battle they don’t even know they are fighting, They are not seen as leaders until they can do what Ginger Rogers did;  do everything a man does except in high heels and backwards. The experience issue is just a façade, masking a bias against Kagan because she is a woman and as a woman she is first assumed incompetent.  

 Iron Butterfly Kim Campbell and ex-prime minister of Canada had the same problem. When she became her party’s leader, they called her a rookie. She had her assistant calculate how much cabinet experience the previous prime ministers had. Out of 18, only 8 had more experience than Kim. As she told me, “It drove me nuts!”

 The interesting thing is that women also hold this unconscious bias. So it won’t be surprising to see women also question her experience. Let’s not do that sisters and brothers! Let’s be conscious of the assumptions we bring to the table!

 Kagan is experienced, she knows what women experience in our culture and that experience is needed in the Supreme Court, and needs to be represented.  It’s still not equal on the bench, but now we have three women and the potential for their collective power to be realized.  Ruth Ginsberg who has had to go it alone finally has company, a wise Latina woman and someone whose been experienced.


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