JOHN ROBERTS, the Bush Supreme Court nominee who has received the highest possible rating of ''well-qualified" from the American Bar Association, seems to have a unique talent for driving the feminist establishment to distraction.
First, there was the appalling ad by NARAL Pro-Choice America, charging that Roberts had filed court briefs supporting abortion-clinic bombers because he once argued that a federal law against conspiracies to deny equal rights to certain groups could not be used against nonviolent protesters at abortion clinics. (The Supreme Court eventually agreed, 6-3). Even most abortion rights advocates were dismayed by this smear, and NARAL quickly withdrew the ad.
Then, after the National Archives released the memos Roberts wrote as a legal adviser in the Reagan White House in 1982-86, there were new discoveries of Roberts's crimes against womanhood. Horror of horrors, he opposed measures to promote equal pay! It turns out, though, that what Roberts actually opposed was ''comparable worth" -- a briefly popular doctrine which proposed equalizing pay in female-dominated jobs (e.g. laundry worker) and supposedly comparable male-dominated ones (e.g. truck driver).
In a letter to three Republican congresswomen who had backed this proposal, Roberts quite correctly characterized it as a ''radical redistributive concept" that ''mandates nothing less than central planning of the economy." The idea that bureaucrats, judges, and ''experts" can determine fair pay is absurd -- particularly, as liberal commentator Michael Lind has pointed out on the TPMCafe website, in an ever-shifting job market and in an era of constant technological revolutions.
Roberts's other offenses? In 1983, reviewing a report on state-by-state initiatives to combat sex discrimination, he singled out several ideas as ''highly objectionable" -- among them, special tuition breaks for women at state colleges to compensate for their lower earnings (a scheme so harebrained and so blatantly discriminatory that it's amazing it was seriously considered) and preferential treatment for women and minorities during layoffs. Looks like Roberts believed that equality actually means -- well, equality. Oh, the beast.
Elsewhere, Roberts dismisses as ''crass considerations" a proposal that Reagan should elevate Sandra Day O'Connor to chief justice in order to win more female votes. (And that's a bad thing?)
Then, there's the controversy over a joke in one of the memos. Commenting on the recommendation of White House staffer Linda Arey for an award honoring women who had changed professions after 30, Roberts noted that Arey, a schoolteacher turned lawyer, had ''encouraged many former homemakers to enter law school and become lawyers." He added, ''Some might question whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good, but I suppose that is for the judges to decide."
This is obviously a jab at lawyers, not women -- to be taken no more seriously than a line in another memo in which Roberts calls a Girl Scout who had sold 10,000 boxes of cookies and wanted to sell one to President Reagan ''the little huckster." Unfortunately, some people seem anxious to validate the stereotype of feminists as humor-deprived. National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy told the Chicago Tribune that Roberts's views were not conservative but ''Neanderthal," since many conservatives ''expect women to be paid fairly" and ''think women should become lawyers if they want to be lawyers." (Never mind that the Neanderthal is married to a woman lawyer.)
Not to be outdone, Elliot Mincberg, senior vice president of People for the American Way, accuses Roberts of a dismissive or even hostile attitude toward ''laws and theories and arguments that would promote equality for women." Even some of the mainstream press has echoed the party line: The
In Slate.com, legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick finds that even if the feminist ideas Roberts criticized were bad, it doesn't get him off the hook because he criticized them in a disrespectful tone. In Lithwick's view, Roberts may be nothing less than ''a woman-hater." Her smoking gun? An article he once wrote opposing the gender integration of an all-boy Catholic school, which included a sexist joke about giggling and blushing blondes in the classroom. This article was written in 1972, when Roberts was a 17-year-old high school junior. Maybe some intrepid reporter will dig deeper and find out what he said about girls in kindergarten.
Roberts's views on abortion and other issues may be a legitimate cause for concern for women's rights groups. Yet so far his critics have resorted to so many bad arguments that one must wonder if they have any good ones.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.