Today’s NYT Styles section ran a story reflecting on the fact that the last two Supreme Court nominees were unmarried, childless women in their 50s, Then Comes the Marriage Question.  The writer, Laura Holson, quotes Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode as being annoyed at the assumption that you have to be married to be considered happy or, really, normal.  Right on.

Holson also spoke to me – for quite a while – last week, and I get some nice quotes too on how being an unmarried adult woman remains something that has to be explained.

The piece is fine – it’s the Styles section after all, and ran just inches away from the wedding announcements!

Then comes Tenured Radical, a widely-read blog written by historian and American studies professor Claire Potter, who noted the publication of Holson’s article, but takes issue with my quote:

why didn’t Franke point out that being in a non-traditional, lesbian partnership is one viable way to be fully supported in one’s emotional, sexual and professional life? I never publish anything without two sources, but with people like you punting on this one, Professor Franke, no wonder ambitious lesbian legal scholars are still in the closet.

Hard not to chuckle at this sort of criticism, given how much I’ve blogged and published about this very issue.  And, of course, it wasn’t my article, it was Holson’s, and she wanted to write something about Elena Kagan that didn’t raise the lesbian issue.  For a change.

But more on the substance of the issue raised by Tenured Radical, it strikes me that she is making the same mistake as that of the homophobic critics of Kagan.  Why should we determine, if not overdetermine, un-married adult women who have not had children as a “lesbian issue.”  I’m all for “non-traditional lesbian partnerships that are emotionally and sexually satisfying and which enable professional success” (though I’m not sure where the non-traditional part comes in here), but in some respects I think the no-marriage, no-kids thing is much more difficult for straight or celibate women.  The enormous social pressure they face to marry and have children is now, and has long been, overwhelming.

I stand in awe of the women, like Kagen, who resist the matrimonial industrial complex and its largest subsidiary, repronormativity.   As a lesbian, I’ve only just started to feel the pull, if not shove, of community expectations that well-adjusted lesbian or gay adults in committed relationships get married and start raising children.

The point of Holson’s article was to highlight the social pressures on, and social judgment of, women who, by the age of 50, have not been married and have not had children.  That’s a topic worth reading about in the paper of record, without reinforcing the stereotype that all these childless spinsters are closeted, albeit satisfied lesbians.

Tenured Radical’s critique of Holman’s article misses the queer-ness of the underlying issue here, and substitutes in its place a yearning for recognition of a stable kind of lesbian identity.  Cue Wendy Brown here.


  1. What Makes An Un-Married Adult Woman Who Has Not Had Children A Spectacle? (Franke, Gender & Sexuality Law Blog): http://tinyurl.com/2fjw2q8

  2. I don’t think there is anything about my piece that suggests “a yearning for recognition of a stable kind of lesbian identity” — whatever *that* means (excuse me while I turn over my Meg Christian LP!!)

    Seriously, if you want to have an argument about who is queerer than whom, you can win if you want to. You are definitely more famous, so you might be queerer too for all I know. My point is that the whole national conversation about Kagan is frantically homophobic, particularly among her liberal defenders in the political and scholarly community. You had an opportunity — as an out lesbian legal scholar — to make an intervention in a national publication that addressed that homophobia. But you didn’t: instead, you redirected it back onto heteronormative anxiety about whether (straight, privileged) female attorneys can have it all. In retrospect, counselor — that doesn’t strike you as a punt?

    As a public, we don’t *know* that Kagan is in resistance to “the matrimonial industrial complex and its largest subsidiary, repronormativity” any more than we *know* anything about her sexual orientation (or possible lack thereof — how’s that for refusing stable identities?)

    But we do know that everyone is running hard from even the possibility Kagan might be confused with a lesbian, or the idea that being a childless lesbian could be good for one’s work and career.


    Tenured Radical

  3. I have wondered my whole life why being on one’s own is considered so sad and lonesome. Even the word alone is tainted. Why should coupledom be assumed to be better in and of itself? Surely being happy or satisfied alone is a very good sign? Surely it is retrograde to imply that those who are not coupled up or in possession of a ‘family’ are lacking?

    Of course this understanding of autonomy has contributed to my thoughts about gender and migration!

    And all that’s apart from the assumption about lesbianism.

  4. Katherine Franke on the matrimonial industrial complex: http://bit.ly/bBzADd

  5. […] also, a comment by Tenured Radical to an article on Kagen: As a public, we don’t *know* that Kagan is in resistance to “the matrimonial […]

  6. What Makes An Un-Married Adult Woman Who Has Not Had Children A Spectacle? http://bit.ly/bBzADd // Ok, Katherine Franke FTW.

  7. […] enough for your favorite Radical to be read out of the community of queer scholars yesterday for reductive identity politics by a hotshot New York law professor who does not hide her sexual orientation (which could be […]

  8. Hiya! Fantastic blog! I happen to be a daily visitor to your internet site (somewhat much more like addict ) of this website. Just wanted to say I appreciate your blogs and am seeking forward for far more!

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