For conservative Christian women, Barrett’s success is personal

Ruth Graham, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 29 2020 07:18 AM

President Donald Trump with Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her family at the White House after he announced on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, that he was nominating her for a seat on the Supreme Court. Barrett is a new kind of icon for some, one they have not seen before in American cultural and political life. Al Drago/The New York Times

Ruth Malhotra had just arrived in Florida for a vacation with some girlfriends from high school and their families when President Donald Trump was scheduled to introduce his next nominee for the Supreme Court on Saturday afternoon. A college football game was on the television at their rented beach house. “Turn off football and turn on CSPAN!” she told her friends. “We’ve got to watch this; this is historic.”

Malhotra, 36, a lifelong evangelical Christian who works in communications for a Christian ministry, has little personal affection for Trump. So she was surprised to find herself tearing up as the he introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the Rose Garden, describing her as “a woman of unparalleled achievement, towering intellect, sterling credentials, and unyielding loyalty to the Constitution.”

Malhotra’s mother was watching at home back in Georgia, and felt a spark of recognition in Trump’s description of a selfless, family-oriented woman who reveres the Constitution. Her mother texted: “Trump’s description of Amy reminds me of you.”

Barrett’s nomination pleased many conservatives, who see in her legal credentials and judicial philosophy the potential for her to be the next Antonin Scalia, a solidly conservative presence on the court for decades.

But for many conservative Christian women, the thrill of the nomination is more personal. Barrett, for them, is a new kind of icon — one they have not seen before in American cultural and political life: a woman who is both unabashedly ambitious and deeply religious, who has excelled at the heights of a demanding profession even as she speaks openly about prioritizing her conservative Catholic faith and family. Barrett has seven children, including two children adopted from Haiti and a young son with Down syndrome.

“I found some personal inspiration in Ginsburg — you couldn’t not,” said Mary Hallan FioRito, a conservative Catholic lawyer who graduated from law school in the early 1990s, referring to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

“She made me know this is possible. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. Amy Barrett is the perfect replacement for Ginsburg because she, too, in a different way, is saying, ‘This is possible.’”

Though Barrett’s nomination has inspired pride in Catholic circles, it has also generated enthusiasm among conservative evangelical Protestants. Barrett belongs to an ecumenical Christian community in South Bend, Indiana, whose worship practices draw from some Protestant traditions.

“Representation matters very, very much,” said Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, a 29-year-old evangelical who works as policy director for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The fact that Barrett is an adoptive parent feels significant to Sobolik, an adoptee herself who is now pursuing an international adoption with her husband.

Malhotra, who has been following Barrett’s career for several years, said she saw in Barrett the attributes of women she admired in different spheres of her own life, but had not seen displayed on such a big stage before.

“She represented the women I go church with, while also representing the professors I had in graduate school,” she said. “She seemed to be the whole package.”

Although Trump is notably more popular with men than women, conservative women are a critical voting bloc for the president as he faces a challenging election in November. The president’s advisers hope the selection of Barrett will energize his base; while it is unclear yet how much difference the nomination will make to voters who are already inclined to vote for him, it has added a jolt of energy in some circles.

Several women reported participating in enthusiastic group text chains about Barrett, who they sometimes refer to as “ACB”; her name comes up in video calls with friends, in the preschool pickup line, and in their own prayers. And some reported a feeling of protectiveness as the judge and her family enter what will probably be a bruising confirmation battle and sprawling culture-war skirmish.

To Barrett’s fans, she is proof that women can be as ambitious maternally as they are professionally.

“She’s someone who is challenging a mainstream consensus that there’s a certain way that women need to live their lives in order to succeed,” said Gabrielle Girgis, 30, who recently completed a doctorate in politics at Princeton University, is Catholic and has two young daughters. “She represents the fact that not all women need to think the same way about the raising of children and family planning.”

Girgis, who has a hearing disability, said she had a special fondness for professional women like Barrett who “make space in their lives for children with disabilities.”

Girgis watched the nomination announcement Saturday with Mary, her 3-year-old daughter, on her lap. Mary met Ginsburg when Girgis’ husband served as a clerk for Justice Samuel Alito, and it was a profound moment for Girgis to talk with her daughter about Barrett and ruminate on how Ginsburg helped create the path to her nomination.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment,” she said in a text message Sunday.

Barrett first came to national attention in 2017, when Trump nominated her to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Several senators directly questioned her in her confirmation hearing about whether her Catholic faith would influence her decisions from the bench. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told her.

That moment was galvanizing for women who saw themselves in Barrett.

“Among Catholic professional women who are moms, it just instantly resonated,” said FioRito, who lives in Chicago. “There’s such a groundswell for Amy, and a lot of it came out that anger and resentment for how she was treated.”

After the 2017 hearings, T-shirts and tchotchkes emblazoned with the slogan, “The dogma lives loudly within me,” proliferated on customization websites. A friend sent FioRito a mug that featured the phrase and Barrett’s portrait.

For women with large families, Barrett’s appearance in the Rose Garden on Saturday with her seven children, whom she called “my greatest joy,” was especially poignant.

“She shows that it’s possible for a woman to rise to the top of her profession while having many children,” said Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a Catholic mother of 10 who graduated from Stanford Law School and now serves as director for a conservative legal advocacy group focusing on religious liberty.

Kristan Hawkins attended the Rose Garden event as the president of the anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America. As an activist, she is gearing up for the cultural and political battle over the nomination in the weeks to come. But as a Catholic mother of four young children, Hawkins said she feels a personal validation in this moment that she had not experienced with past judicial nominations.

Hawkins also sees Barrett as a living rebuttal to the abortion rights argument that access to the procedure is necessary for women’s social and economic equality. She recalled the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the right to abortion in 1992.

The majority opinion stated that women’s equality relies in part on “their ability to control their reproductive lives,” which Hawkins characterized as “the ‘women need abortion’ mentality.” Barrett’s life is “the counterpoint to that,” said Hawkins, whose husband stays home with their children. “She’s proving what conservatives say: Women are strong enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

For Malhotra, who interrupted her vacation to watch the nomination announcement Saturday, Barrett’s new prominence may also push back against stereotypes in some Christian and conservative settings.

“What does she have, six or seven children?” Pat Robertson asked on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2018 when Barrett’s name was floated as a potential replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy. “That’s going to be tough, to be a judge and take care of all those kids, won’t it?”

“‘You can’t have it all’ — you hear that from the right and the left,” said Malhotra, who does not have children but said she would love to someday. “There’s a disdain on the left for raising a large family. On the right, there’s a hesitance, like ‘Maybe it’s not the right time for you to be pursuing this academic position or running for office.’ She challenges that on both sides.”

Malhotra had been engaged in conservative political activism for most of her life until stepping back a few years ago; she volunteered for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign as a pre-teen. But “this moment,” she said, “gives me a desire to get back in the ring.”


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