Correction to This Article
A July 22 Style profile of Jane Roberts, the wife of John G. Roberts Jr., indicated that the Supreme Court nominee is antiabortion. He has not made his position on the issue public.

Nominee's Wife Is A Feminist After Her Own Heart

Jane Sullivan Roberts, front left, was co-chair of a 2002 Holy Cross alumni dinner at the Supreme Court.
Jane Sullivan Roberts, front left, was co-chair of a 2002 Holy Cross alumni dinner at the Supreme Court. (Photos Courtesy College Of The Holy Cross)

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By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

In 1995 Jane Sullivan walked into the tiny downtown office of Feminists for Life, a group she'd heard about from a friend. Serrin Foster was staffing the front desk and explained to her what they were about: The group was a kind of updated antiabortion group that concentrated more on "prevention than rhetoric." It was started in the '70s by some "hippie anti-nuke, anti-death penalty activists," including two women who had been kicked out of a National Organization for Women meeting for saying they were antiabortion.

Sullivan's response was the same as that of many women who discover the group after searching for someplace that could contain all their various beliefs: "I've found my home," Foster recalls her saying.

By the most extreme stereotypes of the political landscape, being a committed, self-described feminist and being strongly antiabortion are irreconcilable opposites. But throughout her life, Sullivan, who became the wife of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, has lived in that small slice of the Venn diagram where these two circles overlap. She was not available for comment for this story.

She comes from an Irish Catholic family from the Bronx and went to an all-girl Catholic high school, then Holy Cross College, and has remained very devout. At the same time, she has lived a modern feminist adventurer's life, traveling the world in her twenties, collecting degrees in math and education, becoming a partner at a competitive D.C. law firm, starting her own family in her forties.

Those scouring the writings of John G. Roberts to assess how he would vote on future Supreme Court cases involving abortion will not find much clarity from his wife's record. Like him, she seems unequivocally antiabortion in her personal views, but from there she does not follow the usual path.

At the moment she found Feminists for Life, they were just gearing up for a transformation, and Roberts instantly joined the board and gave the group legal advice. In their efforts to address the causes of abortion, they banded with traditional feminist groups to lobby for the Violence Against Women Act and against certain welfare cuts.

"We found ourselves at the Heritage Foundation in the morning and the ACLU in the afternoon," recalls Foster, naming two groups that wouldn't be caught dead on the same conference call together.

This is the mental agility legal colleagues of all political stripes admire in Roberts, just as they do in her husband.

"In her politics and her faith she has an enviable clarity, and she always has," says Tina Kearns, a fellow partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "But she is not a pro-life caricature. She would be more defined by how highly intelligent she is and how interested she is in other views."

"She got out of the neighborhood," is how her younger brother, John, used to describe Jane, who was the oldest of four. They grew up in an Italian and Irish Catholic neighborhood, where Jane and sister Mary played stickball and basketball in the street. Her father was a mechanic in the postal service and her mother was a medical secretary. Even now a family motto is "you can always depend on Janey," says Mary Sullivan-Torre.

John never finished high school and stayed in New York, as did the rest of her family. Yet he and his sister remained close. When recently he needed a lawyer for a business matter, she found him one and stayed on top of the smallest details of the case. When he was killed in a car accident in February, a grieving Jane made the funeral arrangements and gave what many attendees describe as a warm and funny eulogy, calling her brother a "man of extremes," one with a heavy Bronx accent and terrible grammar but one of the smartest and bravest people she knew.

In her own life Roberts, now 50, traveled far from her Bronx roots. At Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, she was part of its first freshman class of women. Some had opposed the decision to integrate, so the women who chose to go there were seen as pathbreakers, pioneers walking into sometimes uncomfortable territory.


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