Why just Amy Coney Barrett gets everything
Her deep faith, motherhood embrace, and career achievements made her a right symbol. Why aren't more religious Christian girls encouraged to be like her?
In Christian culture, symbols are intended to remind flawed people what they might become. Jesus' portraits, the Virgin Mary, and the saints remind the devout to strive to holiness and sacrifice in their daily lives. Meditating on a symbol may be prayer: Lord, make me more like them.
A living symbol for religious Christian women, Amy Coney Barrett, whose Supreme Court confirmation hearing began Monday. Judge Barrett merged motherhood and work dual directions into one, proving that each can be sacred vocations.
Her legal record retains for decades the revived prospect of a conservative Supreme Court majority; her position as a mother of seven, including two adopted children and one with special needs, is a testament to how her pro-life convictions bear out in her personal life.
Since President Trump revealed his decision to name Judge Barrett, many conservative Christians have been thrilled with the prospect of their symbolic influence in cultural wars. Anti-abortion organizations including Concerned Women for America and the Susan B. Anthony List are lobbying on her behalf, while Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse have defended their religion from anti-Christian bias.
For her champions, Judge Barrett represents a modern type of feminine strength — living evidence that women are healthy enough to have both a job and children, and that abortion will ultimately serve solely to let both men (sexual partners) and The Man (discriminatory workplaces) off the hook in seeking real gender equality.
So it's worth asking: if Judge Barrett's Catholic faith and unquestionable professional achievements make her such a young Christian heroine, why isn't the conventional Christianity she adheres to inspiring more people to be like her?
Clearly, few in secular cultures can be like Judge Barrett. Many Americans don't reap the benefits of class and elite education as a federal judge and legal scholar. For many women, a flexible career and loving spouse — things many men take for granted — remains elusive.
But there's another reason why few Christian women will successfully seek professional goals and family life in Judge Barrett 's way: in conservative Christian cultures, women are frequently asked to surrender the former at the latter's altar.
Study for a book I wrote on Christian women's roles indicates Judge Barrett is the exception, not the law, to conventional Christian beliefs on women's work and vocation. Most of the 125-plus women I interviewed over two years said they learned from a peer, pastor, or professor that becoming a wife and mother was their highest calling by God's design — and a job would detract from that. As such, many professional Christian women feel less than Christian or woman whether they pursue those goals as Judge Barrett followed her own.
If second-wave feminism denigrated caregiving work, many Christian cultures over the past 50 years replied by imbuing motherhood with holy glow. (Visit the Evangelical Church on Mother's Day weekend and maybe you're blinded.)
Of course, several women I interviewed felt called to have kids. But they also felt called to start a non-profit, go back to school, organize politically or interview for C.E.O 's job, but only the call to seek outside the home created shame.
The stigma is applied from outside. One young woman I met excitedly told her pastor she had started law school. The pastor answered that no Christian man would like to marry a lawyer. On her first visit to a Seattle megachurch, a female publicity director heard the preacher preach that he knew no women working outside the house. At age 27, an older Christian woman told me that if I decided to invest in my education, I'd miss the opportunity to get married and have kids — and I'd better make my decision soon.
These perceptions suggest that "good" Christian women should only be one thing. (They also challenge Judge Barrett's own religious group, Citizens of Praise, and his lessons on male leadership, understandably.)
Traditional Christians claim that God created men to be leaders of church and home, and women must submit to male leadership in these fields. This is why many Christians fail to allow women to take up occupations and professions where they can exercise power over men. If a church teaches that the nature of femininity is godly obedience, so, in fact, it is impossible to allow women to lead and retain authority at work. In 2017, evangelical polling firm Barna Group found that evangelicals were the least likely group of all Americans to be happy with a workplace comprising more women than men. They were also less likely to say that women face obstacles at work.
Judge Barrett herself reveals that women can be multiple things at once: an experienced student, a law lecturer, a judge, a mother, a spiritual leader, a wife and, in her words, "space mom, car-pool driver and birthday party planner." She said this would not be possible at a 2019 event without a husband who is "a total all-in partner" in raising children and running a family. She described another office and courtroom atmosphere that embraced the participation of her children.
Judge Barrett is likely to become the most religious Christian feminist in public life after Sarah Palin, who once addressed concerns regarding her work-family balance with the following: "I'd just like to escort Neanderthal back to the cave to any detractors who suggest a feminist can't think and work and carry a baby at the same time." (I imagine Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have agreed).
But if a generation of girls follow in the footsteps of Judge Barrett, church leaders would require explicit assistance. Evangelical and conservative Catholic societies must find ways to honor and affirm half their members' goals.
They could do so by teaching the dignity of "secular" professional work at all levels; openly advocating generous pro-family employment policies; addressing misogyny and sexual abuse both outside and in the church; and calling for men to champion the careers of their wives and divide family duties.
But while many Christian leaders would affirm these as priorities, it would take nothing less than a transformation of church-based gender roles for a groundwell of Christian men to put the professions of their wives first and take a primary caregiver position as Judge Barrett 's husband has.
It's been disheartening to see so much religious analphabetism extended in recent weeks to Judge Barrett's personal life. We would hope journalists look past dystopian fiction to decode, for example, what a "handmaid" is. But to put the record straight, on handmaids and beyond, traditional Christians must do their best to envision a wider and more humanizing view of the role of women in the public square. Christianity has always had a liberating seed: one that teaches women that the capacity to work, build and form structures is as vital as their capacity to bear children. If Christians don't like handmaid tropes, it's time to be explicit about what Christian women should do and be.