Another important role model emerges

Growing up in Maine in the last century meant growing up with images that were hardwired into our brains, but now seem curiously outdated.

Say the word “coach,” and we would conjure up an image of a strong, often older male in a rugby shirt or sweat suit maneuvering our male high school football (or basketball or baseball) team from win to win or, in gloomier years, from loss to loss. Women coaches, like female teams, had yet to break into the club.

Call out the word “cop” and, again, the person we expected to respond was a man, a younger, more wiry cousin of the coach, perhaps, with impatience wrapped around him like a second skin.

Then there were the lawyers and judges. And here, too, the hardwired images were overwhelmingly male. Suited, soft-voiced, perhaps, but always men who seemed to bear authority in their bones.

Now, however, in the 10th year of a new century, these image have altered dramatically. When women talk of “robes” in this month of June, they may no longer be talking about graduation robes and the first aches of job hunting. Given the social changes under way – changes that stretch from Maine to every state in the country – their talk of robes may have more to do with women moving up the judicial bench.

Launched on that process now, with the whole nation watching, is Elena Kagan, the solicitor general of the United States, nominated by President Obama to succeed Associate Justice J. Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. Her presence in the headlines is changing lives. And – beyond court decisions, legal debates and the pursuit of justice – that’s what having “role models” on the court or in the vetting process is all about.

Young women look closely at Kagan in her black suit and pearls. They’re not looking for shopping tips and menus. They are looking at legal achievements. This woman was the dean of Harvard Law School. As solicitor general, she is the nation’s lawyer in cases argued before the Supreme Court.

Young women absorb that information, and for the first time in American history they can say, with no hint of fantasy, “When I grow up I want to be a judge on the Supreme Court.” In my youth, that would have been a statement of lunacy. Today it’s a high but achievable ambition that puts teenage pregnancy in the shade. It is ambition, too, that affirms what you know counts a lot more than what you were wearing when you learned it.

As such, it helps to fire ambition that can translate into change.

Maine women are fortunate. They haven’t had to wait as long as much of the nation to see the nature of that change. Nearly 20 women hold places on benches in the Maine Judiciary, culminating with Chief Justice Leigh J. Saufley and Justice Ellen A. Gorman of the Supreme Court. Three women sit on the Superior Court’s bench and about a dozen District Courts throughout the state. Their presence is no longer a novelty. Their integrity on the bench has long since been confirmed.

For years, a question has been, “These women have excelled in our state. But where do they go from here?” For a few who will follow them into the future, one answer may be, “To Washington.”

The U.S. Supreme Court already boasts two women, Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. And they, too, are role models for younger women in Maine and elsewhere. But the perception of Sotomayor, newest to the bench, tends to focus on her Hispanic heritage more than any other factor. And Ginsburg has long since settled into a stable, liberal role on a court that has become more markedly conservative. More women offer a chance to better reflect the country.

All of which should make a broader field of choice more attractive – for those who seek to serve justice and those of us who depend upon what they find.

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