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Motherhood and Amy Coney Barrett: Objection-Irrelevant.

Motherhood and Amy Coney Barrett: Objection-Irrelevant.

How many children does Supreme Court Justice appointment front-runner Raymond Kethledge have? What about Brett Kavanaugh- is he a father? What about Amy Coney Barrett?

If you follow the news surrounding hopefuls for the empty SCOTUS seat, you undoubtedly know that Barrett, a federal circuit judge and Notre Dame law grad, is the mother of seven children. In fact, judging by the media’s profiles of her, this is the most interesting thing about her (rivaled only by her devout Catholicism). Some on social media found this portrayal of her insulting, in light of her actual legal bona fides that have seemingly taken a back seat to her status as a mother:

Others seemed to find her prolific breeding to be a unique qualifier in and of itself:

Whether Barrett’s motherhood is wielded as a positive or as a negative-many on the left fear her religious beliefs and large family will translate to votes against reproductive freedom-the fact that it is mentioned it all is unique to her gender.

Professionally, I admire Amy Coney Barrett. I suspect I disagree with her ideologically straight down the line, but I see a woman who has climbed to the top of the same ladder on which I cling to lower rungs. She graduated from a prestigious law school and at 46 years old was appointed to a federal judgeship. But I refuse to add “and she did it while raising seven children!” as a modifier to my praise. I would not do that with her male counterpart, either.

I won’t pretend that being a mother and a professional cannot be a harder gauntlet for women, because it is still true that mothers are often doing the lion’s share of childcare. It can be more demanding to do all the work of parenting and excel professionally. I have two children and I have often wondered if either my role as a mother, or as a lawyer, has suffered because of the other. But to always tie motherhood in with the bouquet of a woman’s accomplishments is illogical. It assumes professional success was achieved “despite” being a parent, or that parenting success was achieved “despite” being a professional.

Why do we assume that Barrett is a super mom, whose skills at juggling jurisprudence are matched only by her talents for play-date arrangements and soccer game schedules? Maybe she is. I have no idea. And it is irrelevant to whether she is suited for the highest bench.  A childless woman would be no less qualified than Barrett, all other things being equal. After all, no one measures the qualifications of a male candidate in terms of offspring produced. Some trivia: Justices Cardozo and Brandeis had no children; Ellsworth (one of the original three Supreme Court Justices) and Scalia had nine. You didn’t know? That’s because no one cares.

My point, I suppose, is that being a mother should be irrelevant to discussions of whether Barrett is qualified, and of how she may decide cases before her. Much of the hand-wringing at play by the left opposing her nomination concern her anti-reproductive freedom stances. This may be true of Barrett, but the number of children she has is not competent evidence of that position. An untold number of pro-choice advocates are parents; 59% of women who abort have at least one child and many will go on to give birth again. Yet many liberals fear that Barrett’s full quiver means she would overturn Roe v. Wade; many on the right believe the same and welcome the thought. Both are wrong; she may vote that way, if the opportunity ever comes before her, but the fact that she has given birth is worthless as far as prognostication.

Simply put: her motherhood is of no relevance to her potential nomination. Mentioning it as part of her biography is absolutely appropriate; lumping it in with facts about her career, professional achievements and federal judicial appointment when discussing her qualifications is insulting. It is insulting to women who want to be seen as professionals, to women who do not have children, and to fathers, whose contributions to parenting are apparently not noteworthy.

Being a parent is hard, and I am proud that my children are reasonably well-mannered and relatively happy. But having given birth to them is not my crowning achievement. If someone is describing me generally, then yes, I would expect and welcome my status as a mother to be included. But if anyone is ever setting forth my professional qualifications and they feel the need to add “mother of two”, I will assume that I have not done enough impressive or noteworthy things in my career.

I recall an early episode of that astute American sitcom classic, “Mama’s Family”, in which Mama was arguing with her spinster sister, Aunt Fran. Mama attempted to insult Fran or bolster her side of the argument by pointing out that, unlike old maid Fran, she had raised three children. Fran responds that she is tired of hearing that line, as though having children was some sort of accomplishment. “Good Lord, Thelma!” Rue McClanahan’s Fran retorts, before storming out the front door, “MOSQUITOES can reproduce!”

Senior Editor

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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23 thoughts on “Motherhood and Amy Coney Barrett: Objection-Irrelevant.

  1. I totally agree! Maybe, maaaybe we’ve gotten to the point where, if she gets a nomination hearing, we won’t read about her outfit within the first the paragraphs of any news article on it…

    But if anyone is ever setting forth my professional qualifications and they feel the need to add “mother of two”, I will assume that I have not done enough impressive or noteworthy things in my career.

    I hope that’s not literally true, given that on balance of probabilities, the person presenting your qualifications is just a schmuck.


  2. I’m usually very slow to raise the spectre of an ‘ism’ without getting into the deep weeds but I do find the discussion of female justices and nominees to be quite patronizing at times. I get similarly annoyed with all of the ‘Notorious RBG’ crap. These women are serious jurists, not monuments to conservative family values or girl power, or whatever partisan cheerleaders want to carry on about.


  3. Imagine, if you will, someone who has no children. This person has a pet that they refer to as their “baby”. They refer to themselves as a “mommy” or “daddy” to this pet.

    So some judge shows up and it turns out that she has seven kids.

    Do you think that this judge will have their best interests in mind in any given conflict in your city? Like, if there’s a conflict between taco trucks and the elementary school, which side is she going to take?

    If there’s a conflict between a youth center downtown and the latest night spot, which side is she going to take?

    If there’s a movement to build new housing, is she going to be more inclined toward the builders who want to build multi-family housing or more spartan apartments better suited for young urban professionals who are working for a start-up?


        • Personal views, predilections, and what have you come into play to the same extent they will with any person acting in a professional capacity. Judges are human and as fallible as the rest of us. The best ones are circumspect about their own capacity to get it wrong or be swayed by something they shouldn’t be, though admittedly they’re not all like that.

          Still when I was in private practice and dealt with judges I found difficult or who I felt had blind spots I never came across anything like the disregard for the law based on personal preferences being suggested. As cynical as we’ve become I think the judiciary has a bit more integrity than that.


        • I mean, if that’s how it is I guess Catholic judges can never be trusted to hold in favor of a Protestant if they can mange avoiding it, blacks can’t for whites, men for women, gays for straights, and so on and vice versa. We might as well reinstitute trial by combat.


          • I think this proves too much: the idea that judges might be influenced by their experiences doesn’t strike me as inherently pernicious.

            Going out on a limb here because IANAL, my understanding is that the law often requires judges, to, um, make judgment calls, about whether a behavior meets some qualitative standard (like whether a “reasonable” person would do it). I would expect such judgments to draw on their experiences because precedent, statutory language, et c., can’t cover absolutely everything with arbitrary precision.

            This suggests to me that having diverse backgrounds among judges is generally a good thing, though.


            • This suggests to me that having diverse backgrounds among judges is generally a good thing, though.

              Better to have judges who can draw on their experiences because precedent, statutory language, etc, and end up agreeing as much with you as they possibly can anyway.

              I mean, if you’re a fan of taco trucks.


              • Diverse backgrounds in legal experience, too.

                Consider Arizona v. Arizona from a couple years ago. Would another East Coast conservative, in Kennedy’s place, have voted the same way? Certainly the East Coast pundits predicted Kennedy’s vote wrong. I don’t remember reading a single East Coast pundit who wasn’t predicting “open and shut, the independent redistricting commission goes down.” They were seemingly unaware that a decision that some election topics were off limits to initiatives, done at this late date, was going to totally screw up the entire West (and the far western part of the Midwest), where such things had been done for more than a hundred years. Kennedy, California and 9th Circuit boy, was certainly aware of it.


            • Of course personal experience influences judges the same way it can influence anyone. What I’m pushing back on is Jay’s assertion which seems to be ‘she has a lot of kids therefore she can he expected to consistently rule in a manner favorable to litigants with a lot of kids or that favors the interests of people with a lot of kids.’ No one knows that and its an absurdly arbitrary deduction. We have no idea where parenthood falls on her list of priorities and how exactly that life experience influences her views. Even as a relatively new parent I can tell you there are almost as many dogmas and philosophies on children and parenting as there are parents.

              Maybe if someone did a full review of her opinions you could identify a trend like the one Jaybird is speculating about. Not having done one i can’t say for sure it isn’t there but my guess is it’s as full of evolutions and idiosyncrasies as the record of any accomplished judge. Now I do agree that diversity of experience is something the courts need more of but the oversimplification is silly and exactly what I think the OP is rightly criticizing. I found Scalia really frustrating when I was doing criminal defense work but man did he get it on the confrontation clause while a lot of the more supposedly liberal justices tend to get all squishy.

              To reiterate I’m not saying they’re always right or that they shouldn’t be scrutinized or there aren’t times where their personal experience is informing their decisions but there’s a lot more to them than that alone. They aren’t just out there making gut decisions based on their feelings and affinities and the fact that people seem to believe thats all there is to it is no good thing.


    • Allow me to suggest that the judge’s unconscious predilections with respect to issues like these will probably be motivated substantially more by the judge’s perception of her place on the economic pyramid than the judge’s perception of her family status.

      And judges, on average, are picked from points of the pyramid closer to the apex than the base.

      Economics are not destiny any more than family status, of course. It’s a subtle influence operating unconsciously most of the time. Hopefully, since we’re talking about a judge, she’ll have taken some time to study bias deeply, and to have meaningfully reflected upon her own biases to be aware of them and engage her conscious decision-making accordingly. With that said, judges are human like anyone else.


      • Well, sure. But compare the unconscious predilections of the people who will be most involved with opposing the judge with the unconscious predilections of the people most involved with defending the judge.

        Where are these going to fall?

        Because I imagine that the loudest voices, on either side, will have pretty juicy perceptions of their places on the economic pyramid (no matter which side they claim to be advocating on the behalf of, of course).


    • Fair question… if you apply the same analysis to every parent on the bench, including the men. Maybe YOU do. My point of course is that most wouldn’t; it is typically a non-issue.


  4. I don’t want this thought to diminish the obvious correctness of the OP’s point. Let me suggest that unless I’m totally of it, the idea I describe operates at best parallel to what the OP describes.

    There’s something of a cultural obsession with the notion that a woman should “have it all:” she must be successful in her career, she must have a strong and fulfilling family life, she must have multiple rich friendships, she must have engaging hobbies or other non-vocational activities, she must have secured financial independence and security for herself, and she must have good looks and good health. It’s a notion that she must somehow be perfect in all ways and from all perspectives.

    The downside to this is that if a woman doesn’t “have it all,” she is by contrast something of a failure. And “having it all” is in reality a myth that is extraordinarily difficult for nearly anyone, man or woman, to obtain — worse, even if you actually do have it all, you feel like you don’t, because the media creates these aspirational totems who have more of it than you or did it faster than you did. It feels especially poignant for women because the reality of women achieving high levels of success in historically male-dominated professions is still something with which our culture is shamefully still uncomfortable.

    So maybe we’re hearing about Judge Barrett’s “achievement” of having had a relatively large number of children in part because there’s a cultural gravity to this myth of “having it all;” the way we make sense of the incongruous novelty of a woman thrust to public prominence is we visualize her through that lens. She has it all: she’s at the very top of her profession, she has this large and loving family, she is affluent and attractive, she is deeply involved in her church and para-church activities — and she got all of it before she even turned fifty! It’s mythmaking: she’s Superwoman!

    For some of us, we can stop there are worship her, and feel insecure and inadequate within ourselves because we haven’t achieved as much as she. For others among us, we can dig and look for the dark side to the myth, the super-vulnerability to contract with her super-achievements.

    If she is honored with the nomination to the Supreme Court, let us not be dazzled by a myth but instead focus principally on her intellect, her integrity, and her temperament.


    • The cultural obsession with “women having it all” comes from a particular type of upper middle class to upper class feminism. It exists because upper middle class to upper class men were expected to have it all; a thrilling youth where they demonstrated athletic prowess, a successful education and career, a loving sexy wife, great kids, etc. if they couldn’t achieve this, these men were seen as failures. I think that the having it all mode of feminism was based on this even if only subconsciously so.

      People from more desperate backgrounds know that wanting to have it all is impossible except for the very lucky. Usually compromise is necessary.


    • I think there are people on both sides who are using that fact to emphasize that she departs from the cultural norms of the ruling class, each for rallying their own side. But I’m also open to the idea that there’s a gendered component to this as well — e.g. I didn’t even realize that Scalia had nine kids (though it’s not surprising in retrospect). Maybe if a man with nine kids were in consideration now, it would be just as much of a talking point, but I rather suspect not.


    • I’m not sure what the big deal is. 5 1/2* of the justices are Catholic. Replacing one catholic with another shouldn’t matter as much as replacing one liberal with a conservative. People separate their personal religious views from their politics all the time.

      * Gorsuch was raised Catholic but is suspected to be Episcopalian.


      • The only reason the religion stuff is even an issue is all the bullshit kabuki where everybody pretends they don’t know how conservative justices are going to rule on abortion rights cases.


  5. So, just to throw a cat among the pigeons …

    While I agree that parenthood is something that shouldn’t matter when talking about someone’s *professional* accomplishments, I do think it’s something we should acknowledge when it we evaluate the entire person. Raising kids (he says as a parent) is one of the most important tasks in our society — the world must be peopled. And it’s arduous. Maintaining a career and a family is like working two or more full-time jobs. Where the sexism comes in is that we seem to have this expectation toward mothers but not for fathers. That we expect men to just breed and move on. And that cuts both ways: not acknowledging the burden that fatherhood imposes while simultaneously praising men for even the tiniest contributions to child-rearing.

    In this particular case, however, I think her family is being pushed forward for the same reason Sarah Palin’s was back in 2008: a signal to the GOP based that “she’s one of us”. For the GOP, Palin having five kids, including one with Down’s, was a sign of her cultural conservative bona fides. I feel the same is going here. Which is a bit of a pity, as it shoves aside Barret’s ample accomplishments.


    • As a father, I agree with everything you said re; families and the time they take. But both sides of the fence are pointing out the number of children, which in my eyes are an attempt to make cultural hay.


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