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05.11.10

Elena Kagan, High School Activist

In her first steps into politics, Elena and I were student co-presidents of our high school’s governing body—where we fought for the right of girls to smoke indoors and latched onto the ‘70s feminist fervor.

In her first steps into politics, Elena and I were student co-presidents of our high school’s governing body—where we fought for the right of girls to smoke indoors and latched onto the ‘70s feminist fervor. Plus, read our full coverage of Elena Kagan

Over the last two days, thousands of bits and bytes have been devoted to poring over Elena Kagan’s record at Harvard, Princeton, and the Supreme Court—but what about her first foray into politics? She and I were co-presidents of the student-faculty governing body at Hunter College High School in the mid-'70s when two then-radical victories were won.

The first no doubt must endear her to our smoking president—we successfully lobbied to "legalize" smoking in the girls’ bathrooms. That way, we would not have to leave the school (then housed in the 13th and 14th floors of an office building at 466 Lexington Ave and 45th Street) in between classes to smoke and be late for our next class. We won—mostly. The school administrators agreed to allow one of the four bathrooms to be a "legal" smoking bathroom. It became the fun place to be. Clouds of smoke, looking in the mirror, fashion tips and weekend plans, exchanging quick tips about the test we had just taken and you were about to take, and other high school adventures. The legalization of a smoking bathroom ensured we'd be on time for the next class. It was very wise for the administrators to give students just enough freedom to shut us up for the next fight. Elena is now a “reformed teenage smoker who confessed to the occasional cigar” during her anti-tobacco work in the Clinton administration, according to The New York Times, while I am a struggling Nicorette addict.

Read Our Full Coverage of Elena KaganAnd the second cause: a lawsuit brought by 24 boys who wanted to join the ranks of the then-all-girls school. With me as the student plaintiff (for all the wrong reasons I now realize), a judge ordered the school to go coed. It admitted its first class of boys in the class that entered in fall 1974. Kagan’s younger brother Irving, who now teaches there, was among the first coed classes.

Back then, one of the cries of the time was for "meaningful" student participation in school governance. And so the Central Advisory Council (CAC) was formed to be an elected body of students and faculty to decide, or at least recommend, policies. That was the gimmick. The school leadership was pretty enlightened and used to the students as pains in the ass—in fact, encouraged it. All part of “leadership training.”

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CLICK TO ENLARGE. Hunter College High School 1977 year book photo of Elena Kagan. (Newscom)

Activists by nature, we held smaller meetings at Elena's West End Avenue apartment and plotted strategy on the Persian rug in the living room; I remember her father coming home and providing counsel. It was the feminist fervor era—second best to the anti-war days we longed to have been part of. We would have tacked onto almost any cause—we were so eager to be part of it all. We fought for women’s writers and literature course—we won that too and got a lunchtime seminar called, "Women Writers: From Sappho to Steinem." HCHS was an Ivory Tower; a student body comprised of smart hall monitors; we were the best of our elementary schools from all over the city. (We sat for a grueling test in January of our 6th grade and about 200 of us gained admission to Hunter High.) The protests of the ‘60s inspired us—because we were part of the college, the high school had shut down too during anti-war protests.

But cult-like Hunter girls had other advantages, too. We were told again and again that we were the "elite." A definitely un-p.c. word now, but we were told to wear it proudly—the elite, the chosen, we could do anything—and we all believed it. Elena has proved it true, while my politics haven’t extended past my tenants association and the Bronx High School of Science PTA.