Judge Barrett and Senator Harris negotiate America’s freighted expectations for women.
By Claire Cain Miller and Alisha Haridasani Gupta
During Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week, Republican senators, one after another, marveled at a role that doesn’t appear on her résumé: mother of seven. They described her mothering as “tireless” and “remarkable,” clear evidence that she was a “superstar.” Senator Josh Hawley asked her for parenting advice.
Judge Barrett has embraced the image. News cameras were there to watch her load her large family into her car before her official nomination. “While I am a judge, I’m better known back home as a room parent, car-pool driver and birthday party planner,” she said the day she was nominated.
One of her sharpest questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has, in other settings, repeatedly emphasized her role as stepmother, which she took on when she married six years ago. She’s called Momala, she has told voters, and she cooks the Sunday night family dinners.
For American women in public office, being a mother has become a powerful but tricky credential. A woman who is professionally successful and ambitious is often seen as threatening or off-putting, researchers have found in multiple surveys of voters, but being a mother tempers that. It makes women seem warm and relatable — and suggests they can relate to voters’ lives, too.
Yet Americans are also ambivalent about mothers who work, forcing women to negotiate an obstacle course of perceptions and expectations.
Little of this is required of men. Compare, for example, the confirmation hearings in 1986 of Justice Antonin Scalia, a mentor of Judge Barrett. Senators welcomed his children to the hearings and offered them breaks, but spent little, if any, time connecting his fatherhood to his professional life. Justice Brett Kavanaugh spoke of coaching his daughters’ basketball teams, but there was little focus on his family life as a qualification.
“It’s that tightrope that women have to walk that men don’t,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster at Bellwether Research and Consulting, who focuses on female voters and has been critical of President Trump. “If you’re a mom of young kids, how are you managing that? If you’re a career woman with no kids, do you just not understand my life? You have to address that before you can move on.”
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