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.
"Our class was idealized, mythologized as an amazing class of strong forthright women, probably even to an exaggerated degree," recalls Kim McElaney, a friend of "Janey's." By their senior year, a woman was editor of the school newspaper and a feminist club had formed.
Jane Sullivan was a math major known for being thoughtful and close to her professors. Like many of the students, she attended chapel regularly, went on religious retreats and did service work, but even so, she was on the devout end of the spectrum.
"She was known for her authenticity," says McElaney. "She was not one of those people who live one wild party life Saturday and another on Sunday."
Her fun was clean: She organized swing dances for her dorm and liked to ice skate. To this day, none of her friends or colleagues who were interviewed claims to have heard her curse.
After college she won a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation to study at the University of Melbourne in Australia, where she earned a degree in education. Then she went to Brown University, where she got a degree in math, and finally to Georgetown University Law School.
By the time she came to the firm where she works now -- after clerking for Judge James M. Sprouse in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and working at another law firm, Piper Rudnick Gray Cary -- she had a deliberateness and maturity that stood out among the junior associates, says Kearns. She was ambitious but unpretentious, driving the same Volkswagen Bug for years.
Sullivan began as a litigator, then moved on to the highly technical field of satellite procurement. In 1996 she married John Roberts, whom she had met once years earlier through mutual friends. (One of the groomsmen was Michael Luttig, an appeals court judge who was also on the short list for the Supreme Court nomination.) By then she was 42, and Catholic doctrine prohibits most forms of fertility treatment. She and her husband went though an "uncertain difficult period where she wanted badly to have children," says Kearns.
For a long time the adoption process didn't work out, but Roberts never lost hope, Kearns says. Five years ago they adopted a daughter, Josephine, and in less than a year a son, John, and Roberts was suddenly a 45-year-old mother of two infants.
Two years ago she scaled down -- she stopped practicing law and was tapped to start the firm's in-house training and evaluation program. She's still on the boards of Holy Cross College and the John Carroll Society, a Catholic lay group. She and her family live in Chevy Chase and her children attend Episcopal Day School.
Her kids found it strange to see their dad's face on TV in a little box, she told colleagues before the nomination was announced. This week she has been too busy to go to the office.