Religious Women, Like Amy Coney Barrett, Can Also Be Models Of Female Empowerment

Several years ago, I had a very unpleasant exchange on Facebook with a man I didn’t know. He told me that I have Stockholm Syndrome because I’m an Orthodox Jewish woman. Besides the fact that I chose this life (and continue to choose it everyday), I was disgusted that this stranger mansplained to me how I ought to live if I want to be free. He had no interest in actually learning about how and why I am an observant Jewish woman, what my process was like to get here, and how much these values and rituals add to my life. He had already summed me up and discounted my thoughts and opinions as irrelevant.

Make no mistake, there are certainly Orthodox women and women from all walks of life, both religious and secular, who are not free, who are not choosing how they live. And this is a problem. Good people everywhere should promote the ability for women and all people, for that matter, to live free, self-actualized lives.

But what about women who choose to live a life with traditional religious values which include having large families, dressing modestly, and having different religious roles than men do? Are these women suffering from mental illness or are they exercising their free will as they see fit?

Case in point: newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. I’m not here to discuss her nomination process or her political persuasion, which is a very contentious topic. None of that it relevant to this article.

What I do want to address is the fact that she’ s an accomplished, conservative Catholic woman with a large family who lives by traditional Christian values and has a leadership position. This feels not so different from my life as an Orthodox Jewish woman with a large family and a successful career (albeit several notches below the highest court of the land!). She has been called out in numerous articles for being the antithesis of a feminist. Some critics don’t believe that women with large families can excel professionally, like this one commenter on Twitter expressed:

i admire a mother with 7 children, two adopted from haiti and one with down’s syndrome. i just don’t know how amy coney barrett possibly fulfill her duties in scotus and as as mother traveling between washington dc and indiana? — (@tink_240) september 26, 2020

This is completely unfair and detrimental to women, because if feminism claims that it supports women making self-actualized choices, then some us of will choose to have large families as we balance meaningful professional opportunities. We should not be shamed for that. Let mothers and fathers figure out how to juggle it all, not snarky people on Twitter.

Others have stated that because Justice Barrett is an originalist, which likely means that she does not believe that the Constitution allows for universal healthcare and abortion – two values that some feminists believe are the litmus test in calibrating feminism, she can’t be a feminist.

Disagreeing with someone’s politics or how they interpret the Constitution is totally fair game. Some people are Democrats, others are Republicans. Some believe in originalism, others believe in loose constructionism. The question is why can’t a symbol of female empowerment come in all shapes and sizes? If a woman uses her education and intelligence to come to certain conclusions that are in line with a prevalent political view that has hundreds of years of backing in our country, why must she be demonized for that?

Perhaps the argument is that a feminist has a duty to care for other women. So if Justice Barrett will not vote in favor of universal healthcare, she’s causing harm to women. Interestingly, one of Barrett’s critics noted that Barrett acknowledged in a 2013 talk at Notre Dame University that the best way to prevent abortions would be through policies that support “poor, single mothers.”

How do those policies come about? I have to imagine that Justice Barrett believes they should be legislated. So if she believes in pro-female policies, but believes they should come about through a different mechanism than some of her detractors do, can she then be considered a feminist?

In a 2011 interview, Justice Scalia, Barrett’s mentor, explained that he believed that women are not protected by the Constitution, saying, “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex…The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t…If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey, we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws.”

As an Orthodox Jew, this conversation is VERY familiar to me. There is a tension in believing in, respecting, and wanting to preserve an old text while acknowledging that it doesn’t always easily fit into modern society. And that is sometimes an uncomfortable space for us thinking, caring, religiously conservative people to be in. For instance, I believe that Jewish law requires women to stand behind a mechitza (divider) during formal prayer. Yet in pretty much any other instance, I would be totally opposed to a woman being behind a divider if men didn’t have to be.

Whenever women talk about not having a voice or not having permission to take up space, I think to myself “I must have been absent the day in school they taught girls to stay quiet and go unnoticed!” I am proudly full of opinions and a presence. And yet I believe in standing behind a mechitza when halacha requires it.

Why? Because in some instances where my personal views and the preservation of Judaism come into conflict with one another, I choose Judaism. Now is there a limit, you wonder? What if Judaism caused me to have to do something morally abhorrent, like killing an innocent person? Would I still be on board? That would get to be a very uncomfortable place, and my Judaism would have to suffer at that point. But thankfully, there are no laws that require an observant Jew to do such a thing, in fact, although there are challenging parts of the Torah that may be hard to square away intellectually at times, I believe my most basic duty as an Orthodox Jew is to love my neighbor as myself.

Just as amendments to the Constitution can be ratified and new laws can come about through legislature – which is a slower and more arduous process than laws being overturned in court, so too, the Orthodox Jewish perspective is that the halachic process also allows for innovations and updates, like banning polygamy, allowing women to inherit, evening out the divorce process, and more.

The reason that originalists and Orthodox Jews alike want a slower process for change isn’t because we love slavery or hate women (God forbid!) it’s because we hold the texts that we frame our lives by in such high regard that we are careful to treat them with great care.

Political and religious dialogues and debates should be encouraged – vilification and demonization should not.

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