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Sam Alito’s woman problem

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Scott and Liz Zepper had a Twitter colloquy a couple of nights ago about the notable fact that Sam Alito went to school in an elite educational world that was almost devoid of women, as either professors or students.

I dug into this question a bit, because I don’t think it gets nearly enough attention.

First, let’s look at the matter of women law professors. When I was a first year law student at the University of Michigan in 1986-1987, my Torts professor was Christina Whitman. Whitman was 39 years old at the time. She was also the first woman ever hired to the tenure track at the law school. (She had been hired in 1976).

Prior to the 1970s, there were almost literally no women professors at Ivy League colleges and law schools. Sam Alito graduated from Princeton in 1972 and Yale Law School in 1975. That means he probably didn’t have a woman professor in either college or law school. Princeton first granted tenure to a woman in 1968, and Yale University — not the law school, the whole university — had exactly two tenured women professors when Alito started attending.

Indeed as an undergraduate Alito didn’t even have any women in his classes until his junior year, because until then Princeton College was all male. Alito found this situation so congenial that upon graduation in 1972 he joined a brand new organization, Concerned Alumni of Princeton, that was formed to oppose the admission of women to Princeton. (This remarkable fact has somehow gone pretty much completely down the memory hole).

By the standards of our current gerontocracy Sam Alito isn’t even that old — he was born in 1950 — but he was educated in a world in which it was simply taken for granted that there was no place for women at elite educational institutions, except as the occasional freak law student who was getting a degree for no good reason, since obviously she couldn’t use it once she got married and started having babies (If you think this is hyperbole you need to get out more).

All this reminds me of an almost totally forgotten episode in the history of the SCOTUS: Richard Nixon’s intention, aborted at the last minute, to nominate Mildred Lillie to the Supreme Court. Nixon was of course a complete misogynist, but he was also a crafty bastard, and he saw much political capital to be gained by nominating a woman to the SCOTUS, what with all this women’s liberation thing going on and all.

Plus Lillie was even a Democrat! How’s that for bipartisanship? Lillie’s nomination was sunk when the ABA voted 11-1 to give her a rating of “unqualified” for the nomination. I’ve never read any of her opinions, but John Dean has pointed out that the rate at which they were reversed by the California Supreme Court — she was on the intermediate appellate court — was typical rather than unusual in any way, so there just might have been some sexism involved.

Dean is also of the view that Lillie was better qualified for the SCOTUS than Sandra Day O’Connor. She certainly had a very interesting biography, working in a cannery to pay for her law school tuition at Berkeley, and managing to land a position as an Assistant United States Attorney in 1942, which was needless to say an incredibly rare feat for someone of her gender at the time. A few years later Earl Warren made her at age 32 the youngest person ever appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court. So I think it’s fair to suspect that the “unqualified” ranking that sunk her potential nomination was a product of a bunch of male chauvinist pig lawyers being characteristically porcine.

Here it’s worth recalling that according to Dean Chief Justice Warren Burger actually threatened to resign from the Court if Nixon nominated a woman to it.

You kids will never believe it, but this kind of thing was considered totally normal at the time — a time that your faithful correspondent, who is old but not that old, remembers quite clearly.

In any event, I don’t think there’s nearly enough appreciation of the fact that, when it comes to gender politics, reactionaries like Alito want to return not to some mythic distant past, but merely to the glorious all-male environment of their college and law school days.

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