An attempt to portray the newest justice as a hyperambitious puppet of male power fails to capture her feminine genius
Editor’s note: The following piece appeared at National Review Online on February 15, 2022. Executive editor emerita Maggie Garnett wrote this article in response to Margaret Talbot’s February 7, 2022 profile of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in The New Yorker. We thank NRO for allowing us to reprint Garnett’s article.
After reading a recent article in the New Yorker, one could not be blamed for imagining Amy Coney Barrett to be made of marble: a cold, impenetrable, masterpiece of the conservative artisan. That is, after all, how Margaret Talbot presents the newest addition to the Supreme Court.
As a young conservative woman, I was shocked by the lengths to which Talbot went to caricature Justice Barrett as an almost robotic product of her male mentors and as a mere mouthpiece for their legal philosophy, rather than as an accomplished and talented jurist in her own right. Between sweeping generalizations about ongoing developments in jurisprudential theories, Talbot dwells—inanely and ironically—on a superficial picture of Barrett that zeroes in on her attire, “youthful-sounding voice,” and exercise habits. Talbot writes:
“A fitness enthusiast seemingly blessed with superhuman energy, [Barrett] is rearing seven children with her husband … At her confirmation hearings, she dressed with self-assurance—a fitted magenta dress; a ladylike skirted suit in unexpected shades of purple—and projected an air of decorous, almost serene diligence.”
I can only imagine the outrage had this paragraph been written about another female Supreme Court trailblazer like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Surely it would have been decried forcefully. “Not fair!,” the critics would scream. “You can’t define this woman by merely her physical attributes! She is as hard-working, as qualified, as achieving as her male peers—and you wou ld never speak of their attire or the frequency of their exercise.”
In this instance, I find myself in fervent agreement with the critics. Yet Talbot’s efforts to discredit Justice Barrett reflect the deep-rooted so-called systemic misogyny of which conservatives are so often unfairly accused.
Talbot refuses, time and time again, to give a woman of incredible intellectual caliber—who has received perhaps the highest honor of the legal profession—any credit of her own. Instead, she relentlessly attempts to tie Justice Barrett to—and define her by—her involvement with the Federalist Society, her formation under Justice Scalia, and her time at Notre Dame, which Talbot identifies as “the nation’s elite conservative law school” (emphasis in original).
Setting aside the question of whether there is anything inherently wrong about Justice Barrett’s association with these mentors and institutions, I am struck by Talbot’s deeply antifeminist disregard for Justice Barrett’s ability to form her own ideas. Our culture claims to celebrate women’s rights and rightly objects to the exclusion of women from fields that men have historically dominated. Talbot, purportedly endorsing these same feminist values, fails to apply these standards, and instead attempts to discredit Amy Coney Barrett’s every achievement. The irony, evidently, is lost on her.
President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court—who he has promised will be a black woman—will be a hero to the mainstream media, in no small part because she will, if confirmed, join a small band of women who can claim that achievement. She will be presented as a self-made woman, possessing a unique voice to offer the nation’s highest court. I presume that this portrayal will be, in many ways, true. But if that female judge dares to think the wrong thing? Will she receive scrutiny of the kind Talbot has published? I predict the media will say nothing at all if they have nothing nice to say. Yet Justice Barrett is maligned simply because that same media have decided that she is the wrong kind of woman.
Women ought to make their voices heard in the public square, we are told, unless they have a conviction that is considered undesirable—say, on the sanctity of human life. “All are entitled to their own opinion and complete autonomy,” progressive elites tell us, “unless you’re pro-life, which no woman should be. If you are, you are necessarily a puppet of male interests and a traitor to your sex.”
In 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein shared her concern that “the dogma lives loudly” within Amy Coney Barrett. She also said to Justice Barrett, then a judicial nominee: “You are controversial because many of us that have lived lives as women really recognize the value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems, and Roe entered into that, obviously.”
Behind Feinstein’s comment lurked the old-guard police of feminist orthodoxy. Feinstein’s “many of us” was to be perceived as “all of us.” Every woman who has really lived a woman’s life, Feinstein insinuated, should recognize the “value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems.”
Yet as Erika Bachiochi of the Ethics and Public Policy Center remarked poignantly in the midst of Justice Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court:
“If we’re really intent as a country on seeing women flourish in their professions and serve in greater numbers of leadership positions too, it would be worthwhile to interrupt the abortion rights sloganeering for a beat and ask just how this mother of many [Justice Barrett] has achieved so much.”
In some ways, Talbot cannot help but answer the question she dares not ask. She speaks of the incredible love and generosity that the Barretts have for their children, including two adopted from Haiti and one with special needs—a generosity motivated in no small part by their deep faith. Inadvertently, Talbot highlights the unique—and thoroughly “progressive”—balance that Justice Barrett and her husband Jesse have found in order to allow their family to thrive. Even in this piece, Justice Barrett is a living sign of contradiction over and against pro-abortion narratives about women’s flourishing. Talbot’s interviews are testimonies to Justice Barrett’s maternal heroism and constant friendship—not because she “does it all” but because, as her husband movingly says: “You can’t outwork Amy. I’ve also learned that you can’t outfriend Amy.”
You cannot outwork Amy Coney Barrett. She is a once-in-a-generation legal mind whose scholarship, intellect, and kindness has blessed hundreds of law students for decades. She will certainly shape—and in my opinion, bless—the Court for decades to come. Why, then, does Talbot continue to insinuate that her humility must not be sincere? Why does she go to such lengths to construct a case for Justice Barrett somehow being both consumed by a secret ambition and merely a puppet of powerful conservative men?
You cannot outfriend Amy Coney Barrett. Colleagues and neighbors testify to Justice Barrett’s generosity and contentment with her life in South Bend: “She carefully considered opportunities as they arose, but never angled for them … Ambition played no role in her nomination or acceptance of it. She’s not a political actor,” Justice Barrett’s colleague of 20 years (and my mother) comments.
Yet Talbot insists that she knows better:
“On one level, this characterization of Barrett seems genuine. She clearly had a full and busy life in South Bend, and planning to be named a Supreme Court Justice would be like planning to win the lottery. She has spoken to law students about the value of prayer when contemplating career decisions or following a calling. But downplaying her ambition—and, let’s face it, she’s gotten pretty far in life—also feeds a certain wishful narrative. It makes Barrett sound pure enough to withstand the swampy atmosphere of Washington and the careerist temptations of elite approval.”
Again, ironies abound. Talbot assumes that a woman like Justice Barrett couldn’t possibly have been at peace with her vocation as a wife, mother, and professor—that she must have been scheming for more. But who is she to tell Justice Barrett what kind of woman she is, or ought to be?
I do not claim to speak for our newest justice’s jurisprudence, nor do I know how she will vote in Dobbs. A legal scholar might take up the questions of originalism and “common-good constitutionalism” that Talbot raises in her article. I have written previously, though, about my relationship with Justice Barrett as a family friend and neighbor. For as long as I can remember, she has been a mentor and maternal figure in my life, the mother of one of my best friends, and my mother’s best friend. It is because of that relationship that I wrote this piece, and it is with that familiarity that I say only this: Amy Coney Barrett is strong enough to withstand the swamp, faithful enough to place vocation above careerist aspirations, and courageous enough to offer the world a different—truer—kind of feminine genius.
Maggie Garnett is a senior from South Bend, Indiana studying theology and the Rover‘s executive editor emerita. She spent her nearly year-long sabbatical from the pages of the Irish Rover cross-stitching and cultivating her coffee taste, before she found something that got her riled up enough to write again. Fuel that feminine fury (or send coffee shop recommendations) at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Matt Cashore (used with permission)