Far too much coverage of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings has focused on her role as a mother of seven. Republican and Democratic senators alike have admired her “beautiful” and “well-behaved” children. In apparent awe, they have queried, “How do you do it?” In response to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Coney Barrett relied on a familiar deflection: “I have eyes in the back of my head.”
But isn’t it important to learn the real answer? At the very moment when she is achieving her career goal, a quarter of all women are leaving the workplace due to the burdens posed by pandemic. Even accepting the conservative representation that Coney Barrett has been able to “have it all” in a post-feminist era, we also submit to the implicit claim that her likely votes to take away protections for women is no big deal.
So, how does she do it?
Some answers are obvious, even to conservatives. Coney Barrett is a white woman. She has access to good healthcare, and does not live with the constant stress of racism and its concomitant risks of premature delivery or maternal mortality. She has at least an upper middle class income, meaning that her family has $1,000 on hand in case of emergency. Nearly half of other Americans do not.
These privileges have enabled Coney Barret to try and balance work and family. With a job offer from Notre Dame, she moved back to a familiar small city, a supportive faith community and her husband’s many relatives, including an aunt who provided child care. Good health and good help surely amplified personal characteristics: Coney Barrett, like all mothers who work outside the home, must be determined, well-organized, and able to survive on very little sleep.
But conservatives might be less likely to discern another reason Coney Barret has “done it: her decision to leave the private sector. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein reminds us, they expect her to carry forward the full conservative agenda, which includes not just cultural issues but beliefs in the de-regulation of business and the rollback of labor rights. So far, it is unclear if she will.
Coney Barrett worked briefly for a private law practice in D.C. We cannot know her reasons for leaving; we do know, however, what would have been in store for her if she had stayed. Workers at every level in corporate America have seen their hours increase rapidly in the past two decades; parents at both ends of the wage scale may not even see their children during the work week. In elite private practices, attorneys young and old are expected to bill at least 2,000 hours of work a year. Meanwhile, the path to partnership mimics a traditional male life cycle: up or out in 6-10 years. Some firms boast of “flex time options” that “only” require 40-50 hours a week. In The New Yorker, Timothy Wu suggested that work at an elite firm is “like a football game where the whistle is never blown.”
Make no mistake: Being a university professor is demanding and time-consuming; making tenure, like making partner, fits most men’s life cycles better than women’s. Furthermore, colleges and universities have moved toward a corporate style of thinking about customers, managers and labor costs. Yet working at a private law practice and on a university faculty is still not the same. When she arrived in South Bend, Coney Barrett entered a world that was not driven by profit and where ideas were honored over income. The job provided what many women in the private sector only imagine: paid family leave, self-designed schedules, and semester breaks when research and writing can accompany family activities.
While rare, some institutions have even put their money where their mouth is. Princeton University agreed to pay $12 million to female faculty who had been inequitably compensated. Perhaps these experiences explain why the cases Coney Barrett decided on the Seventh Circuit that involved employment discrimination and labor rights, were “closer to the middle of the court” than those she decided on cultural issues.
Amy Coney Barrett has been able to “do it” because her faith and conservative beliefs motivated her to prioritize having a large family. She has also “done it” because of the privilege that accompanied her race and class. But leaving the private sector was also of critical importance to her success. Time will tell if, as a Supreme Court Justice, she upholds the free market with the vigor conservatives expect.
Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ’72 professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. Most recently, she is the author of Nuclear Country: The Origins of the Rural New Right (2020).