It doesn’t matter that Elena Kagan isn’t married…but it mattered to her mother

Another good biography sub-genre: the mother behind the successful woman.  

Elena Kagan when she was still the Harvard Law School Dean in 2004

 I set my heart on writing about Elena Kagan’s mother the minute I heard her mentioned when President Obama nominated her daughter for the Supreme Court. Obama talked about how proud Gloria Kagan must have been as she watched her daughter take advantage of the opportunities she herself never had. The influence that Goria Kagen, a college educated public school teacher, must have had on her daughter got me thinking.  

Christine de Pizan

 I once read that most women writers throughout history share one thing: fathers who regarded their daughters as bright and intelligent people, and educated them accordingly. For example, Christine de Pizan, the medieval European writer, poet and earnest champion of women, was encouraged by her father who happened to be in a great position to encourage her. de Pizan’s father was Charles V’s court physician and astrologer which gave him access to what I imagine to be one heck of a library. Christine’s mother, on the other hand, thought it better for her daughter to learn spinning.  

Later, Christine’s mother became one of Christine’s dependents after both of their husbands died. It seems that no matter how de Pizan’s mother felt about her daughter academic training and writing success, she was never in any position to help her daughter navigate in the outside world.  

It’s sad to think of how often in human history women could not spur their daughters on intellectually or academically because they lacked the power to do so– and how often mothers actually fought against educating their daughters, thinking to make them more marriageable and thus, safe and secure.  

By contrast, Elena Kagan’s mother was educated and became an educator herself. Elena Kagan’s first female role model did not rely solely on her husband for financial security, and teaching at what was apparently an elite public school suggests that Kagan’s mother had a rich intellectual life as well. No wonder Kagan has achieved so much, with such a mother to guide her and cheer her on, right?  

The plot thickened when I read Francine Russo’s Huffington Post piece. Russo grew up in the same apartment building as Kagan. Although Kagan had left home by this time, Russo got to know Kagan’s mother as a neighbor over the many years they lived in the same building. Russo always wondered what it would be like if her own college degree-less, stay-at-home-mom was more like Kagan’s independent, professional mother. Years later, the now adult Russo bumped into the elder Kagan in the lobby of their New York apartment building. Russo took the oppurtunity to congratulate Kagan on her daughter’s new job at the helm of Harvard Law School. In response, Gloria Kagan said something that sounding oddly like Russo’s own mom: “I just wish she’d get married.”

After Kagan’s mother’s death, Russo stopped by the Kagan apartment to offer her sympathy. She told Elena Kagan how proud Gloria Kagan had been of her accomplishments, not mentioning the scene in the lobby years before. But Elena Kagan knew her mom. “With an eye-roll and a tone so reminiscent of her mother, our newest nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States said dryly, ‘My mother only wanted me to get married.’”  


Joe Biden and the President congratulate Elena Kagan on her nomination to the Supreme Court. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images


Photo credit of Kagan at Harvard goes to Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office. 

 I found the lovely image of Christine de Pizan-scribbling away-at the Mommy Life blog at                                            …/2009/06/family_update_z.html   

The picture of the just-nominated Kagan was found at Richard Adam’s blog at 



2 Responses to “It doesn’t matter that Elena Kagan isn’t married…but it mattered to her mother”

  1. erik says:

    Clearly Kagan is no shrinking violet waiting aroung to be defined by some sparkly guy, which is why she deftly dodged the whole Vampire v. Werewolf question:

  2. boswellsgirl says:

    “Deftly dodged” is right! Very funny.

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