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Like Amy Coney Barrett, I'm a professional woman criticized for my big, Catholic family.

Our culture tells women and girls, from a very young age, that patriarchal religion and fertility will only hold them back in life.

Jennifer A. Frey
Opinion contributor

Swirling around and within Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings this week, was discussion and criticism of her Catholic faith. But this isn't the first time her faith was placed front and center during a confirmation process.

In 2017, when the Notre Dame Law professor was nominated to her current position as judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein notoriously attempted to undermine Barrett's legitimacy to serve precisely because she was Roman Catholic. Or, as Feinstein memorably put her objection, “The dogma lives loudly within you. And that's of concern.” 

When it was later suggested to Feinstein that her remarks were anti-Catholic and unconstitutional (i.e., that she was imposing a religious test for fitness to serve and declaring faithful Catholics especially unfit) she balked and pointed to the fact that she went to Catholic schools and has Catholic friends. That this sort of hackneyed defense is common to many forms of bigotry did not dissuade her — she unapologetically insisted that Barrett’s writings informed by her faith were an obstacle to her service to her country, and that it was her duty to ask tough questions about it. 

I, like so many Catholics, was dismayed and appalled by Feinstein’s remarks, in large part because they were all too familiar from my own experience.

Attacking faith and fertility

Of course, we Catholics have long been seen as harboring some hidden, nefarious agenda, which calls into question our fitness to hold positions of power or authority. But for faithful Catholic women in particular, especially those of us who cannot hide the fact that we strive to adhere to the Church’s unpopular teachings about sex and contraception — i.e., Catholic mothers of large families — this anti-Catholic bias takes an especially ugly, sexist form. Unfortunately, I know this all too well.

Six of 7th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett's seven children stand the Rose Garden Colonnade as they watch U.S. President Donald Trump's helicopter leave the White House from Sept. 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump announce Barrett as his nominee for the Supreme Court. With 38 days until the election, Trump tapped Barrett to be his third Supreme Court nominee in just four years and to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday.

Like Barrett, I’m a successful professor and a Roman Catholic mother of many (I have six living children). Like Barrett, I see no deep or unresolvable conflict between my professional ambitions and my personal faith and family life. Like Barrett, I do not try to “do it all,” but rely on my supportive husband to do more than his fair share of domestic work and child-rearing. Finally, like Barrett, my faith and my fertility have unfortunately been placed front and center in discussions of whether I am the right person for the job.

For example, when I was first on the notoriously brutal academic job market in philosophy as a PhD student, visibly pregnant with my fourth child in my interviews, I was subjected to questions and comments such as, whether my work was really all about my religion, in the final analysis; and whether I think Catholic women can call themselves feminists. My personal favorite was when someone compared me (unfavorably) to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was widely known for, among other things, opposing contraception mandates, even as I was in the midst of explicating and defending the views of an atheist philosopher. 

Notre Dame colleague:I've known Amy Coney Barrett for over 20 years. Her intellect and heart are unrivaled.

All of this was in addition to the questions about how I would finish with all these kids; how I managed to get any work done at all; whether I planned to have more children once hired; and whether I had hired help at home.

None of this was appropriate for a job interview in philosophy, especially since my dissertation work did not address any questions about sex, God, religion, Catholicism, or feminist theory. The fact that I was a Catholic should not have been a factor in determining the quality or character of my research or my fitness to teach. And yet it came up, again and again.

Threatened by Catholic mothers

Anti-Catholicism, like many prejudices, is gendered in very specific ways. 

My husband is also Catholic and a philosopher, yet his faith never once come up in any of his job interviews, and his fatherhood was never perceived as a professional strike against him. He was never asked pointed questions about his faith and feminism; his views on abortion were of no interest to anyone. When I look at how Amy Coney Barrett is treated, both in the Senate and in the press, I see that exact same dynamic from my own life in play. Politics aside, I feel a strong solidarity with her. 

Barrett’s nomination raises a question: Why is a highly educated, professionally successful, Catholic mother of a large family so threatening? I think part of the reason is that, according to the prevailing cultural narrative, we are not supposed to exist. Our culture tells women and girls, from a very young age, that patriarchal religion and fertility will only hold them back in life — that the only viable path to happiness is through an embrace of personal autonomy, which the demands of family life threaten. Women who complicate this narrative — not by "having it all" or being perfect, but by embracing their roles as mothers while still having demanding careers — are typically not celebrated, but placed under suspicion. 

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Women who find meaning and fulfillment in family life and their church communities are also often condescended to, as if they are too stupid or victimized to know how to make better choices for themselves. One thinks of Emmanuel Macron’s flippant remarks about women with large families in Africa, which inspired the #postcardsformacron hashtag on Twitter. “Present me the woman," he said, "who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.” Barrett problematizes this narrative we are so invested in, and this at least partly explains the visceral nature of some of the negative reaction to her rise to power.

Jennifer A. Frey in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2014.

Of course, it is only a partial explanation, but still an important one. Amy Coney Barrett is a conservative justice and more than competent and strong enough to defend her own judicial and academic record; I expect her to sail through her confirmation. But she should not have to defend herself as a mother of seven or as a Roman Catholic to serve on our highest court. If Amy Coney Barrett is unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court this will have nothing to do with her Catholicism or large family.

That much of the press has busied itself writing fear mongering pieces about her personal faith is disgusting and blatantly anti-Catholic, but also a touch absurd. After all, if a faithful Catholic woman, who was educated in Catholic schools and has spent most of her life in Catholic institutions, can be this accomplished and successful, maybe — just maybe — the Catholic Church is not as oppressive to women as so many seem to assume.   

Jennifer A. Frey is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and the host of thevirtueblog.com and the philosophy and literature podcast, Sacred and Profane Love. Follow her on Twitter: @jennfrey