I have written a number of critical things about Barrett; I’m sure there will be more, both before and after she is confirmed. But I want to pause here and remark on Barrett’s family, and her motherhood. That subject is not off-limits. It’s a plus.
It sends an important signal to women — and men, for that matter — who may disagree strongly with the judge’s philosophy but cannot help but come away with the message from her selection: It’s possible to manage family and career, however imperfectly and stressfully. Success at work does not require giving up the chance to have children, not if you want them.
It was, of course, politically self-serving for President Trump to note, as he did at the White House several hours later, that Barrett will “make history as the first mother of school-aged children ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Pause here to observe, with a touch of bitterness, that no one considers it a particular achievement for a male justice to have both robes to put on and kids to get to school. We just lard on the praise for their basketball coaching and assume there’s a wife to handle the rest.
It was similarly self-serving for Barrett, in the Rose Garden, to offer, “While I am a judge, I’m better known back home as a room parent, carpool driver and birthday party planner.” That’s what these events are about, after all — to show the nominee as unscary and relatable, as relatable as a Supreme Court nominee can be. Thus Barrett, whose membership in a religious community that once described women as “handmaids” has attracted some controversy, took pains to portray hers as a thoroughly modern marriage, with a lawyer husband who “does far more than his share of the work.”
There’s been some ill-advised commentary on the Barrett family front, already. One prong involves her laudable decision to adopt two children from Haiti. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” tweeted about how this evokes a culture of White “colonizers” who used Black children “as props in their lifelong pictures of denial” of being racist.
Another involves not the composition of Barrett’s family but of its size, remarkable for the modern era. “I guess one of the things I don’t understand about Amy Coney Barrett is how a potential Supreme Court justice can also be a loving, present mom to seven kids?” tweeted Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of a book about sexual assault on college campuses. “Is this like the Kardashians stuffing nannies in the closet and pretending they’ve drawn their own baths for the kids. And if there aren’t enough hours in the day for her to work and mother those kids, when she portrays herself as a home-centered Catholic who puts family over career, isn’t she telling a lie?”
No. No. No. The point of feminism is that Barrett’s seven children shouldn’t be a bigger deal than Antonin Scalia’s nine. The point of feminism is that women get to have the final say whether to have children and how many — and, yes, as I’ll get to later, it is a painful irony that Barrett seems likely to erase the right to choose. If few of us could manage the feat of seven children and a demanding career, Barrett appears to have superhuman endurance, and good for her, as Grigoriadis eventually acknowledged. “More power to ACB and her ability to raise 7 kids.”
More power, indeed. Barrett’s nomination is significant in this regard because she presents a different role model than the four previous female justices. Two — Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — married and had children. But their children (O’Connor’s three sons; Ginsburg’s daughter and son) were grown by the time they joined the court. The two serving female justices — Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — are unmarried and do not have children.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Kagan and Sotomayor don’t have children; perhaps it’s a reflection of the difficulties of managing the highest-powered of careers and family life, or of the challenges that some particularly accomplished women face in finding partners willing to accommodate those whose achievements might eclipse theirs. Not everyone is lucky enough to find a Marty Ginsburg, who reveled in his wife’s brilliance, except in the kitchen.
I’m under no illusion about Barrett’s jurisprudence and whether her having children tempers it in any way that might make it more palatable from my point of view. Quite the contrary. Barrett reportedly learned of her son’s Down syndrome through prenatal testing and chose to continue the pregnancy. She would, it appears, deny others the freedom to make a different decision, as two-thirds say they would.
Being a parent didn’t make Barrett any more sympathetic to the plight of Zahoor Ahmed, a Yemeni woman married to a U.S. citizen. Ahmed’s visa was denied on the grounds that she had attempted to smuggle two children into the country. She argued that the children were hers, she couldn’t have smuggled them into the country because they had drowned, and submitted the police report from the accident. None of this mattered to Barrett, who said the court lacked power to review the decision.
But if there’s a silver lining in the Barrett nomination, however micro-thin, it is her motherhood. O’Connor and Ginsburg paved the way, decades before, for an achievement they could not have imagined, a mother of seven at the top of her profession. How bittersweet that she seems poised to demolish so much of their legacy.
An earlier version of this column stated that Judge Amy Coney Barrett left her home in Indianapolis. Her home is in South Bend, Ind. This version has been updated.