Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court hearings divide Catholic women

“I seriously so admire her story” she texted her friend, a fellow Catholic woman, as she watched the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation hearings this week.

Still, Lynch was bothered by the way the judge’s story was being used by politicians. She felt President Trump was exploiting the nomination to try to win over Catholic suburban women like her, she said. And she was frustrated that senators continued to bring up Barrett’s large family.

“You just know that if it was a father of 7 up for nomination,” Lynch texted her friend, “they wouldn’t be doing that.”

As Catholic women watched the first two days of Barrett’s confirmation process in the Senate, some saw her as a new kind of “feminist icon,” a woman who raised seven children while pursuing a successful career and prioritizing her faith. Others saw an unrealistic model of what Catholic women are expected to be.

“She’s like a new-wave Virgin Mary where you can have it all. You can be a virgin and be a mom. You can be super successful in your career and be a perfect, submissive wife,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York. “It’s pedestalizing the impossible.”

Five of the last six confirmed Supreme Court justices were raised in the Catholic faith, but Barrett would be the first who is also a mother of school-age children — a point that was repeatedly emphasized by Republican senators during this week’s hearings.

“How do you and your husband manage two full-time professional careers and, at the same time, take care of your large family?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) asked on Monday. Barrett’s home-state senator, Mike Braun (R-Ind.), called the nominee a “legal titan who drives a minivan.” And in Tuesday’s questioning, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) complimented her “wonderfully well-behaved” children and asked about her family’s decision to adopt two children from Haiti.

Listening to Cruz “interpret her family’s decision back to her,” Susan B. Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University, found herself identifying with Barrett, and feeling frustrated by Cruz’s questions. “It was very patronizing,” she said.

As a fellow Catholic woman working in academia and a mother of three, Reynolds took exception with the senators asking Barrett, over and over, “how do you do it?”

“Nobody actually wants to know how you do it,” she said. “It’s about saying ‘you don’t belong here’ and sometimes, in the case of Judge Barrett, it’s a way of communicating to the American public what kind of woman does belong here.”

The confirmation process, Reynolds said, is depicting an image of what it means to be “an archetypal Catholic woman in America.”

While Barrett’s large family has been lauded by politicians, Latina Catholics have long been negatively stereotyped for having many children, said Imperatori-Lee.

“It’s a social burden when it’s a Black or brown family,” Imperatori-Lee said. “If it’s a White family in the Midwest, it’s a beautiful symbol of Catholicism.”

For other, more conservative Catholic women, the focus on Barrett’s family resonated in a personal way. Weeks before her confirmation meeting, Catholic mothers shared photos of their children on Twitter, quoting Barrett: “What greater thing can you do than raise children?”

“I’ve never met her, but she feels like an old friend,” said Caitlin VanOrsdel, 37, of Laytonsville, Md. As a mother of eight, VanOrsdel said she feels like an outlier — even among Catholics today. Barrett’s story “makes me feel justified as a Catholic woman, because she’s someone who was true to her faith, and also has a very successful career. That does speak deeply to me.”

She appreciates the way Barrett gives credit to her husband, saying she relies heavily on him. “I think the feminist movement pits men and women against each other,” said VanOrsdel, who said she typically votes Republican. “I don’t believe that’s the way.”

Rachel Harkins Ullmann, executive director of the Given Institute, a D.C.-based organization that serves young adult Catholic women across the country, sees Barrett as a modern example of what Pope John Paul II called “a new feminism,” in which women would not have to feel pressured to avoid motherhood.

“I felt listening to her that I was listening to my neighbor,” Ullmann said.

Erin Lynch, the mother in South Bend, was on vacation with her family on Tuesday but insisted on watching the confirmation hearings over breakfast. She was moved by the way Barrett defended herself and her family in the final minutes of her first round of questioning with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

“Look, I’ve made distinct choices,” Barrett said. “I’ve decided to pursue a career and have a large family. I have a multiracial family. Our faith is important to us. All of those things are true. But they are my choices. And in my personal interactions with people, I have a life brimming with people who’ve made different choices and I’ve never tried to impose my choices on them. And the same is true professionally in how I apply the law.”

Trump’s campaign hopes her nomination will shore up his support among Catholics, who make up a significant portion of the electorate in several swing states. However, Catholics are as divided politically as the rest of the country, and a wide swath of Catholic women see Barrett’s confirmation as a threat to issues they consider essential to their beliefs, such as health care and immigration.

“What matters to me is not her religion or the extent to which she practices her religion but what she will do on issues,” said Tia Pratt, a sociologist based in Philadelphia and a Black, feminist Catholic. “What’s she’s going to do for voting rights and immigration and health care?”

Sister Carol Keehan, a key supporter of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act who was the president of the Catholic Health Association at the time, is particularly concerned about Barrett’s criticism of the logic behind the Supreme Court’s decision to preserve the ACA in her academic writings. Barrett also criticized an ACA provision over birth control. Keehan noted that abortion rates have been on the decline in the past several years since the ACA passed, and Catholic popes have talked about the human need to access adequate health care.

“To think about being pregnant and losing your health care, being in the middle of cancer treatment and losing your health care and in the middle of a pandemic,” Keehan said. “It would be unspeakably cruel and devastating.”

Although she supports Barrett, Lynch also worries about what Barrett’s nomination could mean for issues that align with what she calls her “consistent life ethic.”

She does not support abortion rights, but she also believes that “being pro-life means supporting women and supporting children,” through policies that prioritize child-care subsidies, paid maternity leave, and affordable health care. She works at a nonprofit that helps pregnant women, and she sees how essential these safety nets are to their ability to carry out healthy pregnancies.

While Lynch said she is grateful that Trump nominated Barrett, she feels it doesn’t “outweigh all of the damage he’s done in the last four years,” particularly his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his treatment of immigrants.

“There’s just nothing to me that tells me Donald Trump is pro-life,” she said. “I think it is purely, purely political to him.”

She thinks Trump is hoping his Supreme Court pick will persuade women like her to vote for him, she said. But if anything, Lynch said, it’s had the opposite effect on her. In 2016, she voted for the third-party candidate. But this year she feels even stronger about voting against Trump.

“My dream is that Amy Coney Barrett gets confirmed,” she said, “and then I can vote for Joe Biden guilt-free.”

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