If second-wave feminism denigrated the work of caregiving, many Christian communities over the past 50 years have responded by imbuing motherhood with a holy glow. (Visit an evangelical church over Mother’s Day weekend and you might be blinded by it.)
To be sure, many of the women I interviewed did feel called to have children. But they also felt called to start a nonprofit, go back to school, organize politically or interview for the role of C.E.O. Yet only the call to pursuits outside the home prompted shame.
That shame is powerfully enforced from without. One young woman I interviewed excitedly told her pastor that she had gotten into law school. The pastor responded that she should consider that no Christian man would want to marry a lawyer. On her first visit to a Seattle megachurch, a female advertising director heard the pastor preach that he didn’t know any women who worked outside the home. An older Christian woman told me at age 27 that if I continued to invest in my career, I would lose the chance to marry and have children — and that I better make my choice soon.
These attitudes play into the notion that “good” Christian women can be only one thing. (They also understandably raise questions about Judge Barrett’s own faith community, the People of Praise, and its teachings on male headship.)
Traditional Christians believe that God designed men to be leaders in the church and home, and that women are to submit to male leadership in these spheres. This explains why many Christians have a hard time encouraging women to take on jobs and careers where they will wield authority over men. If a church teaches the essence of femininity is godly submission, it is difficult to then, in turn, encourage women who are called to lead and hold authority at work.In 2017, the evangelical polling firm Barna Group found that of all Americans, evangelicals were the group least likely to be comfortable with a workplace comprising more women than men. They were also the group least likely to believe that women face barriers in at work.
Judge Barrett herself shows that women can be many things at once: an accomplished student, law professor, judge, mother, spiritual leader, wife and, in her words, “room parent, car-pool driver and birthday party planner.” At a 2019 event, she said this wouldn’t be possible without a husband who is “a complete all-in partner” in raising children and running a household. Elsewhere, she has described an office and courtroom culture that has welcomed her children’s presence.
Judge Barrett is set to become the most visible conservative Christian woman in public life since Sarah Palin, who once responded to questions over her work-family balance with the following: “To any critics who say a woman can’t think and work and carry a baby at the same time, I’d just like to escort that Neanderthal back to the cave.” (I imagine Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have agreed.)