Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. As the Supreme Court confirmation hearings continue for Amy Coney Barrett this week, one thing that's been very visible is her family, specifically her role as a working mother.
Amy Coney Barry: As I said, when I was nominated to serve as a justice, I'm used to being in a group of nine, my family. Nothing is more important to me and I'm very proud to have them behind me.
Tanzina: So far at the hearings, Barrett has been especially praised by Republicans on how she's been able to balance motherhood with her professional ambition. Something that male Supreme Court justices so far have not had to focus on.
Senator 1: How do you and your husband manage two full-time professional careers and at the same time, take care of your large family.
Senator 2: Now being a parent, doesn't qualify one to sit on the Supreme Court, but it does give us Hoosiers yet another reason to be proud of Amy Coney Barrett and the trail she's blazed leading hurts to this moment.
Senator 3: I'm struck by the irony of how demeaning to women, their accusations really are. That you, a working mother of seven with a strong record of professional and academic accomplishment, couldn't possibly respect the goals and desires of today's women.
Tanzina: I'm joined now by Robin Givhan, Washington Post’s senior critic-at-large and Emma Green, a staff writer at The Atlantic covering religion, culture and politics. Robin and Emma, so great to have you with me.
Robin Givhan: Thanks so much, for having me on.
Emma Green: Thanks for us.
Tanzina: Robin, let's start with you. Both of you in fact have written in very fascinating pieces about a Judge Barrett's confirmation hearing. Robin, why are we talking so much about Judge Barrett's motherhood during the confirmation hearing so far?
Robin: I think it's because the Republicans have really put it out there. One of the things that I was particularly struck by was on the day of opening statements, it was the rare Republican who could get through their 10 minutes statement without bringing up the fact that she has seven children and going even further to say that not only does she have seven children, two of those children were adopted and really underscoring the connection between the size of her family and her qualifications for the Supreme Court and also her essential identity.
It's understandable that she is proud of her family and certainly referenced them and introduced them, but it was striking to me that it was such a talking point among the Republicans.
Tanzina: In fact, Robin, to that point about mentioning her adopted children, they also highlighted the fact that they children who were adopted from Haiti. What's the intention in bringing that up?
Robin: For me, what I found particularly striking was it seemed to be a way of quietly underscoring a sense that Amy Coney Barrett is an open-armed charitable person, that she is a person who celebrates and embraces diversity because those children are from Haiti and that she is also someone who stands as an example or as evidence for those who want to make the point that there is always a welcoming home for children and therefore there is no need to ever consider abortion.
Tanzina: Emma, when you look at these confirmation hearings, particularly as Robin noted the first day of the hearings, why do you think Judge Barrett's motherhood role has become such a key part of the conversation
Emma: We've heard over and over again from Republican senators, including at the top of today's hearing, the third day of hearings that Republicans see her as a new icon, a role model for conservative women who don't necessarily have a lot of figures in politics or popular culture to look up to.
Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina today was commenting on the fact that he thinks that Amy Coney Barrett is going to be someone that a lot of young conservative women around the country who are ambitious, who want to have careers, but who also want to have families and who also potentially have pro-life views, they're going to look at her and see someone that they can grow up to be.
I think Republicans see a lot of advantage of this culturally, and they also see advantage for this politically at a time when they are desperate for women voters to feel like they have a home in the Republican Party.
Tanzina: As we noted at the very top, however, fatherhood doesn't seem to be discussed very often. I'm thinking most recently with Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. Is there a double standard here?
Emma: I was thinking of Brett Kavanaugh too, because he is clearly very proud of being a father. His daughters had a visible role at his hearings as well, but there was never a question like the one that Senator John Cornyn posed to Amy Coney Barrett during her hearings, how do you do it? How do you possibly manage to balance your career and your large family?
I think the answer here is that the same kinds of sexist assumptions about what women are capable of doing and the sacrifices that they should be making, those apply equally to liberal women and conservative women. I do think that there is a double standard here of examining the way that Amy Coney Barrett balances her family life with professional life in a way that her male colleagues before the Supreme Court have not.
Tanzina: Robin, what are your thoughts on that? We've got about a minute left in this part of the conversation. Do you think there's a double standard there?
Robin: For sure. I think one of the surprising things for some people is the fact that Justice Scalia who Judge Barrett was mentored by had nine children. That was not something that was raised as evidence of his extraordinary ability to balance work and life.
The way that it's being used as a defining feature of Judge Barrett suggests that the role of motherhood is somehow antithetical to the responsibilities of a judge to the responsibilities of a professional and that she has somehow miraculously made these two things work together.
Tanzina: Robin, in your piece for the Washington Post, you wrote that, "Barrett had it all on terms that were acceptable to social conservatives." We hear often Robin, as women, we often hear about this mythical idea of having it all. What do you mean there?
Robin: Well, one of the things that was striking to me is, is that there was this attempt to suggest that her religion, her choices, her feelings about abortion her traditional family life were held up as evidence of her feminism, but also as her qualifications for the bench, but at the same time the Republicans were very quick to be on guard against any suggestion from their colleagues across the aisle that religion should be used as evidence for why she should not be on the bench.
That her life choices should not be used as evidence for why she may not be supportive of a woman's right to define her own destiny. They were really trying to have it both ways, while at the same time taking the pieces of her life that they found useful to support their own cause.
Tanzina: Emma, you wrote about Judge Barrett's faith and how that's been talked about in this moment. How is this being considered right now? Is she somebody who embodies the "good Christian woman ideal"?
Emma: I've written in The Atlantic about the way that her faith has been discussed and Democrats really have tried to avoid because in a previous confirmation hearing, Dianne Feinstein, the Senator from California famously said to then a consideration for a judgeship, Amy Coney Barrett, the dogma lives loudly within you and that's of concern. They were referring to her Catholic faith and her participation in a group called people of praise in South Bend, Indiana, where Amy Coney Barrett has taught.
I think we've seen throughout these hearings that not only have Democrats shied away from this, but Republicans have leaned into it. They see her faith as something she shouldn't be ashamed of.
She talks about it as an essential part of her life. I do think as we're considering this model of conservative womanhood, conservative empowerment, even conservative feminism, that Republicans are trying to put forth, faith and having a community that's a really central part of your life is seen as a huge advantage. It's something to be proud of. I think Amy Coney Barrett has leaned into that as she started to tell her story to the American people.
Tanzina: How often do we see Christian women like Judge Barrett, given these high profile professional opportunities or are some of these women expected to forgo their professional ambitions in favor of family life? Basically, is Judge Barrett the exception and not the rule?
Emma: It's an interesting tension because, on the one hand, I do think that Amy Coney Barrett reflects a certain model of conservative professional advancement, conservative motherhood, cultivation of community and marriage, which is very much in keeping with the model of what good Christian womanhood looks like, but there are also many women who are in conservative environments and conservative Christian environments, who are discouraged from pursuing high powered professional careers, who are told that they need to privilege their husband's advancement over their own.
Certainly, I do think there are conflicting cultural messages depending on what community you're in and the kinds of values that they hold.
Tanzina: Robin, I'd love to dig into that point a little bit more, and especially this idea that you could have a conservative feminism if you will. I'm wondering, as we see more Republican women being described as models of female empowerment from Judge Barrett to Sarah Huckabee Sanders to former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, how do you see this playing out Robin among conservatives? Is there a conservative version of feminism, or is it not? Are the pillars of modern feminism at odds with conservatism in US politics?
Robin: Well, it seems to me that one of the misguided ideas is the notion that feminism is something that is attached to gender, whereas it's a philosophy of life. It's an understanding of genders being equal.
I think that some of the things that are raised by conservatives, suggesting that somehow the culture has not allowed conservative Christian women to flourish seems a bit misguided in the sense that it's not the culture that's allowing them to flourish, but rather, it's their own life choices, and it's their own community that has imposed limits, whether they are real or whether they are psychological.
It seems like to me, it's a bit of a misguided idea that there needs to be this conservative Christian feminism in order for women of faith to have both ambition and also have a home life. Certainly, previous justices were people of faith. The idea that somehow Barrett is this rarity, I also think is a bit of a stretch.
Tanzina: Emma, I'm wondering too, there are-- Some may recall Phyllis Schlafly, who was the conservative anti-feminist activist who essentially played a key role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment decades ago. Some are drawing parallels to Phyllis and Judge Barrett, are you seeing some of that?
Emma: Well, certainly, that's part of the chatter. The great irony of Phyllis Schlafly is that she was a high-powered, extremely professional, extremely savvy woman with a huge platform and a huge career that allowed her to in turn advocate that women remain in their domestic roles and lean into motherhood and wifehood, above and beyond having a career.
I don't necessarily think that's what's going on with Amy Coney Barrett, I think it's a little bit of a next-gen Phyllis Schlafly if you will, because she has said subconsciously that both her and her husband have worked hard to have successful careers. She said that her father taught her messages like anything a boy can do, a girl can do better. It never occurred to her in college that men and women would be treated differently.
She clearly doesn't see the same tension between having a really successful career and having a home life. In fact, she's trying to present them as two sides of a rich life. She said that not fulfilling that home life and family life is shallow and unfulfilled. She's trying to offer this model of both rather than one over the other.
Tanzina: I'm wondering if there's been an emphasis on Judge Barrett's motherhood and being a mother, and if that's somehow a way to position her as somebody who shouldn't be questioned with the hard questions or not to be perceived as someone who should be attacked if you will. I'm wondering, Emma, what do you think about that?
Emma: I think Democrats walked into this hearing with a big optics challenge, which is, this woman who has a lot of stuff support from her community at Notre Dame, who has seven children, one of whom has Down Syndrome, who she reportedly carries down the stairs every morning, and piggyback style and two children who she adopted from Haiti, it's really difficult to look at her and this big family and the life that she's chosen and really go on the offense to try to attack her personally make her seem evil or out to be someone who's scary.
The way the Democrats have taken out that challenge is by really complimenting her family, trying to be very warm and accepting and open about the personal life that she's presented, and then use that to dovetail into these empathic exchanges, especially about the Affordable Care Act.
It's a real thread that they're trying to follow here of not going too far to be aggressive and on the offense, and seem to be maybe trollish or uncouth, while at the same time trying to get their points across that they think that her jurisprudence could potentially be a huge danger to a lot of Americans, especially those who have coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Tanzina: Robin, I'm wondering, just in terms of to piggyback off of what Emma was saying there, just in terms of how we view motherhood in this country and the myth of motherhood or the mythical motherhood tropes that we tend to fall into. Judge Barrett is a white mother and a white professional married mother. How do you view that as playing out here in terms of how she's being positioned?
Robin: Well, I think it raises a lot of questions about the different ways in which we treat mothers depending on the race of those mothers. There is a long tradition of placing white mothers on a pedestal, on a somewhat saintly pedestal. Watching and listening to the hearings, I felt that really was a point that was overwhelming, especially as they talked about the two children that she and her husband have adopted from Haiti.
The constant singling out of them as being these separate other different children. I was really struck by that because in most conversations I've had with parents of adopted children, one of the points that they make is that they are their children full stop, there's not this qualifying adjective. At one point, one of the Republican senators leaned in and was asking Judge Barrett if she could talk about what it meant, what she had learned being the white mother of Black children.
She pushed back on that and said that her personal life choices would not be entering into the way that she decided cases. It seems that even she felt in that moment that the Republicans were really overstepping and pushing too hard on the motherhood strand.
Tanzina: Most are wondering as we're seeing women across the country because of the Coronavirus pandemic, working women, whether they work in retail, or whether they are working in certain white-collar jobs if you will. We are the ones who are really bearing the brunt of this Coronavirus pandemic, in terms of the economic recession, hundreds of thousands of women are leaving the workforce. Many of them just because they're lacking childcare.
I'm wondering if it's tone-deaf right now to continue to single out Judge Barrett's ability, if you will, to juggle all of these things with the assumption that Judge Barrett most likely has childcare and is married, and in her words has a very supportive husband who helps her with all of these things. Is it a little tone-deaf for women who in fact are not as privileged, Emma?
Emma: Well, I'd say yes and no. On the one hand, it's very clear that Judge Barrett has resources that a lot of American women don't. She has a career in academia, which is notoriously flexible. She lives in a small and very tight-knit community, she clearly has a supportive partner and she praised him really highly during the hearings.
I don't think anyone would deny that her situation has advantages that other women don't enjoy, but I also was really struck by a moment during the hearings yesterday when she was talking about some of the struggles that her family has faced during these last six months. The other issue that you didn't bring up in your list is all of the conversation around racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
She was talking about watching the George Floyd videos, and seeing those with her daughter Vivian, who is adopted from Haiti, and weeping with her, feeling like this is a just an impossible conversation to have, because her daughter was very upset, personally and about potentially any children she might have in the future. When she was telling that story, it sounded so much like other stories that I've heard from families as I've been reporting on the summer's protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd video.
Families that are trying within their own configuration, their own particular situation to figure out what to make of this horrific video that was so awful for so many people to see. In that way, I do think her experience has been very similar to a lot of the American women and American families that are struggling this year.
Tanzina: I'm sorry, go ahead, Robin.
Robin: I was just going to say that I was also struck by that moment, but for a slightly different reason. It was because when she started to describe her reaction to George Floyd's death, she began with, "As the mother of black children." I found that to be that little qualifying introduction to be really disconcerting, because one would hope that as simply a human being, one would have found the George Floyd death, the tape of that, everything surrounding that to be disturbing.
That it wouldn't require that you have a black child for that to have elicited tears. I found that striking. I'll just leave it at that.
Tanzina: No, I think that's a very valid point particularly given what we've been talking about, just tiptoeing around race, or bringing up the race of her children or her adopted children in ways that can be considered convenient or other. Finally, I just want to remind our listeners here, that Judge Barrett was chosen by President Trump, who made very explicit appeals to his base and said, "We're going to get a woman in there, we're going to have a woman here."
This is somebody that he chose to be in a lower court, and now is sitting to potentially be confirmed for the Supreme Court seat. The President is not doing as well among women, white women suburban voters, as he once was in the prior election. I'm wondering Robin, do you see this as his appeal or an attempt to appeal to that constituency three weeks out of the election?
Robin: I do think that, sure this choice does try to reach white suburban women. I also think that Judge Barrett has had to spend a significant amount of time during these hearings, trying to extricate herself from the cloud that hovers over this nomination, that hovers over so much that the President touches.
The fact that Senator Cory Booker asked her, whether or not she believed that white supremacy was bad, was incredibly striking that, he felt the need to ask that question in all seriousness. When she agreed that white supremacy was bad, he looked relieved, as if he wasn't quite sure what her answer would be.
Tanzina: Emma, your thoughts on that?
Emma: I think undeniably, the Republican Party understands that it's liability for November is exactly with women who look like Amy Coney Barrett. I talked with Kelly Ditmar, who is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers, and they track gender gaps in national polling, and it's white college educated women.
Women who are balancing careers and family, women in the Midwest, women exactly like Amy Coney Barrett, that they're watching as seeing these huge gaps that are potentially going to be consequential not only for President Trump's re-election, but for a number of vulnerable Senators who are trying to keep their seats going into the next term. I do think that there's a really explicit recognition of the imagery here.
I think there's also a longer term game around the symbolism of her gender. It was reported that when President Trump chose Brett Kavanaugh to be nominated two years ago for the open Supreme Court seat then, that he considered Amy Coney Barrett but that that he said he was quote saving her for Ginsburg, which is a little dark because he's forecasting that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was going to die.
Nonetheless, I think there's the real pointed recognition that replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is a champion of women's rights, who pioneered an area of policy, particularly around abortion access, and gender equality, replacing her with someone who has personally pro-life views, who comes from a conservative perspective, and who may one day be part of decisions that undermine or overturn Roe versus Wade, that that's really powerful.
I think it is about this November's election, but I think it also goes far, far beyond that, and if she gets confirmed, she'll be here with us for many, many decades to come.
Tanzina: There's a lot to unpack this week, and we'll be paying very close attention to the Barrett confirmation hearings as they go forward. Emma Green is a staff writer at The Atlantic and Robin Givhan is The Washington Post senior critic at large. Robin and Emma, thanks so much for joining me today.
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