When Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court, there was much conversation about her legal opinions, her past and prospective stance on abortion, and even her personal religious beliefs. But another subject came up as well: in addition to pursuing an impressive legal career, she is the mother of seven children—two of whom are adopted and one of whom suffers from Down syndrome. Some, notes Naomi Schaefer Riley, “concluded she was simply superhuman.” Riley suggests a less supernatural explanation:
Barrett’s experience reminded me of things I heard while I was working on a book about religious colleges in America in the early to mid-2000s. I spent time on about two dozen campuses from Brigham Young University and Baylor to Notre Dame and Yeshiva University. Even some fifteen years ago, I was surprised that despite the stereotypes of religious communities and female subservience, these young women had similar aspirations to their peers at secular schools.
What I was finding aligned with the American Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA since 1973. According to its 2019 data, roughly the same percentage of students at secular and religious schools want to be business executives, lawyers, or “authorities in their field.” One of the biggest differences, however, is among students who consider having a family “essential” or “very important”— 79.5 percent of students at four-year Catholic colleges said family was very important or essential to them, compared to 66.5 percent of students at public universities.
I found through my interviews that the female religious students often exuded a kind of “calm pragmatism” regarding their futures and families. I noted at the time that their personal goals were more directed by God “than their husbands or fathers.”
Additionally, religious women are more likely to find themselves embedded in communities that expose them to the realities of navigating work and family life before they have children of their own. It also provides them with a robust support network when they need help. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a shared spiritual life often provides the foundation for mutual respect, affection and burden sharing in marriage.