Today's Philadelphia Inquirer story about the phone call U.S. Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas' wife Virginia made to Anita Hill raised some interesting questions for me. Aside from the call to Hill, which I would describe as just really odd, it is interesting that she has turned out to be so politically active, now starting an advocacy group opposing President Obama. There has been some opining about whether her advocacy impacts Judge Thomas' impartiality.
So, for me, it's a workplace issue -- the issue being how one person's job affects the decisions of family members.
Oddly enough, we as reporters struggle with similar family issues. Like Judge Thomas, although not at his level, obviously, we strive to not only write impartially, but to retain the appearance of impartiality. Most political writers are registered as independents, effectively denying them the chance to participate fully in civic life because they have to sit out the primary. (In Philadelphia, for example, the most municipal important races tend to be the Democratic primaries.)
But the appearance of impartiality goes beyond us as individuals. No matter how my husband feels about politics, he can't paste a candidate's sticker on one of our bumpers, or put a campaign sign in our yard. Neither of us signs petitions. The point is that his personal ability to participate is limited by my job. He can't even write a letter to the editor, even though he constantly composes them in his head (and I listen over our morning coffee). We take this position even though his last name is different from mine.
When people take certain jobs, it affects their families -- the effect could be that a teacher may never or rarely be able to attend a function at her child's school, because she has a duty to many children. The effect could be, as it is in our house, that we have school stickers on our cars, not political ones. I'm an active volunteer, but when I volunteer, it's for my children's schools or my church, but not for campaigns or for advocacy groups, even though I have skills that would be useful.
Compared to Clarence Thomas, I'm really unimportant, but my husband and I curtail the full expression of our first amendment rights as well as the duties and pleasures that might come from more civic engagement. That's why taking a job with a public responsibility, whether it be as a politician, a judge, a civil servant, a teacher or a reporter, is a family decision. Families need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages, because spouses in particular, do lose some of their ability to act in the way they would as individuals.