Acton Institute Powerblog

Justice Amy Coney Barrett: a new model for working women?

Amy Coney Barrett and her husband at her swearing in ceremony. (Photo credit: Sipa via AP Images.)

Judge Amy Coney Barrett became Justice Amy Coney Barrett on Monday night. Barrett has called herself “a different kind of lawyer,” and now she’s breaking new barriers. ACB may serve as an innovative model for professional women, as well as an opponent of misguided government programs and policies that encourage workplace discrimination against women.

“Tonight, Justice Barrett becomes not only the fifth woman to serve on our nation’s highest court, but the very first mother of school-aged children to become a Supreme Court justice,” said President Donald Trump at the ceremony – a fact that he deemed “very important.” That it is. Barrett has steadfastly confounded the outdated narrative that women must choose between home or work through her undeniable success in both roles.

The newest justice has been outspoken about balancing the demands of career and family. “I never let the law define my identity or crowd out the rest of my life,” then-Judge Barrett said in her October 12 opening statement. Last February, she discussed the mutually respectful decision-making process that she and her husband utilized to assure they found work-life balance: “We evaluated at every step whether things were working well for the family, for the job I was in.” She even brought her seven children to her confirmation hearings in the ultimate celebration of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day (although she noted that one of her children “got very upset … during the questioning”).

The Barretts’ seamless blending of work and family confused those who believe women must choose between a life resembling The Handmaid’s Tale and regarding men the same way fish value bicycles. This model emphasizes women single-mindedly pursuing status as a CEO or partner, while simultaneously living a childless lifestyle.

“Barrett’s life story puzzles older feminists like [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein because bearing and raising a bevy of children has long implied retaining a traditional life script – like staying home with the children — that Barrett has obviously not heeded,” wrote Erika Bachiochi of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as well as the Abigail Adams Institute, in Politico.

That cognitive dissonance led New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair contributor Vanessa Grigoriadis to say, “[O]ne of the things I don’t understand about Amy Comey Barrett is how a potential Supreme Court justice can also be a loving, present mom to seven kids?” Podcaster Meghan Daum, who has 26,000 followers, replied that senators should inquire about Barrett’s childcare arrangements. She admitted that asking about the Barretts’ home life would be altogether “unfair,” but “just because it’s unfair doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking.”

However, the justice’s life serves as a beacon to aspiring women who hope to achieve the same symphony of personal and professional life. Women have told numerous surveys over the years they do not want to give up childbearing; they say their most pressing request is flexibility. One representative poll found that 40% of women would prefer flexibility to a larger salary.

Barrett’s inspiring story also refutes the notion that universal pre-K is the longing of every working woman’s heart and the key to her success. Left to their own devices, men and women alike reject taxpayer-funded daycare. Witness President Barack Obama, who had access to the greatest child care money can buy but instead chose to have mother-in-law Marian Robinson move into the White House to help raise his daughters. Whatever one may say about some of Obama’s other staffing decisions, only two more loving people could possibly have tended to Sasha and Malia. Government programs to separate parents from children, like those proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, go against the will of 80% of Americans, according to one Pew poll.

Yet they are only part of the problem. Bachiochi wrote:

The sad truth is that nearly 50 years after Roe legalized abortion nationwide, the kinds of accommodations that make childbearing and family life manageable are only beginning to be implemented. Large numbers of companies still engage in rampant pregnancy discrimination. Studies show that women with caregiving responsibilities are often assumed to be less competent or committed to their work than their unencumbered peers; and when mothers or fathers seek to return to work after caring for children, even a short time, their market absence is more greatly penalized by prospective employers than had they simply been unemployed. When a prominent corporate leader — and contender for presidential nominee of the Democratic Party — is reputed to have told a pregnant employee to “kill it,” it’s no wonder women feel the need to hide that they are pregnant when they are at work.

These maladies are exacerbated by the government in nations with robust, paid leave policies. The UK Guardian reported that 40% of managers say they refuse to hire women because of government policy, “with 44% saying the financial costs to their business because of maternity leave are a significant concern.” Government interventions intended to help women stand in their way.

The best policy was enunciated by G.K. Chesterton, who said, “The family is the test of freedom; because the family is the only thing that the free man makes for himself and by himself.” As the Barretts’ splendid life shows, families are better situated to know the best step at each stage of their lives than remote government bureaucrats.

Amy Coney Barrett could become a catalyst for the government to remove barriers that block the way of more women following in her footsteps.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.