Amy Coney Barrett has been not-so-subtly depicted as straight out of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel. Judge Barrett, a mother of seven who sits on the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, belongs to a Christian group known as People of Praise. The
New York Times
reported in 2017 that the group refers to advisers as “head” for men and “handmaid” for women. “The group,” the Times adds, “teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.” (The group said in 2018 it had stopped using “handmaid,” explaining that “the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years.”)
Some might have been surprised Saturday to learn that Judge Barrett lives in a household where her “superb and generous husband” often cooks and does “far more than his share of the work” raising their children. What she has said about work and family over the years confounds the normal contours of the culture wars. She is a walking example of how young children and demanding work can coexist—I dare suggest even happily. More women should hear her message of personal decency and nonconformity.
Interviews with Judge Barrett invariably ask how she balances her professional obligations with the demands of raising seven children. At a February 2019 event with the Notre Dame Club of Washington, D.C., Judge Barrett said she’s benefited from “a flexible workplace and a husband” who “pitches in, and a town of a manageable size”—South Bend., Ind., where she spent more than a decade as a Notre Dame law professor. She used to keep a basket of toys in her office so her kids could play while she worked.
She and her husband, Jesse, a former government attorney now in private practice, “were open to either one of us staying home” at “different points when things were intense with the children,” a trading back and forth that is common in dual-career marriages. Since her 2017 investiture as a judge, “Jesse is really doing much more of the heavy lifting,” including “most of the cooking” and “most of the kids’ doctor’s appointments and things like that during the day.” Does this sound like someone who’s submitted to the patriarchy?
At her 2017 confirmation hearing, she introduced her older children and joked that the others were back home with “friends and fearless babysitters,” a line she used again Saturday. When her kids visit her courtroom, they like to “write out indictments for one another,” she told a Heritage Foundation podcast earlier this year. She’s mentioned leaving work to, say, run an activity at a kid’s school. This life of blending worlds sounds familiar. “I attribute my success in law school largely to Jane,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of her daughter, who was 14 months old when Ginsburg started law school. “I went to class at 8:30, and I came home at 4:00. That was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day.”
Democrats should think long and hard about whether it would be good politics to berate a working mom on television. Politically moderate women voters may identify with a woman who as a new mom “felt a lot of anxiety about whether I was doing the best thing,” away from her kids at work. In the same interview she says it’s great that women have more-flexible hours and longer paid leave, and that raising children is her work that has the “greatest impact on the world.”
Yet many on the left will say that her personal character is irrelevant because a Justice Barrett would overturn Roe v. Wade. No matter that in 2013 she said it was “very unlikely at this point” that the court would overturn Roe. And you won’t read what she said next: “Motherhood is a privilege, but it comes at a price.” A “woman who wants to become pregnant accepts this price, but in an unplanned pregnancy the woman faces the difficulties of pregnancy unwillingly.” Then: “I think supporting poor, single mothers would be the best way to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.”
Perhaps not everyone can relate to someone with such a packed personal and professional life who is reported to wake up between 4 and 5 a.m. to exercise. It’s also true she can afford to hire help, and she told Notre Dame’s club that her husband’s aunt has long helped with child care. But it is worth considering her message to women, at a 2019 event hosted by Hillsdale College, that they are “really free” to choose their own path, even one that might look “a little bit different.” No doubt her life looks different from many families with a more traditional division of labor and also different from most of her fellow judges. She makes this straddle—by her own report not without difficulty or suffering—look like a life worth aspiring to.
“I have seven children,” she told the Hillsdale audience. “Two of them are adopted from Haiti and our youngest has Down syndrome.” When her son with special needs was born and in a neonatal intensive-care unit, “a very difficult time, he was on oxygen,” she remembers sitting with a friend who looked at her and asked, perhaps wryly: “Did you have to be so competitive? You already had the most interesting Christmas card on the mantel.”
Mrs. Odell is an editorial page writer for the Journal.
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