“What are your qualifications?” and “Where do you stand on the issues relevant to our work?” are reasonable questions to ask a candidate for office or nominee to the Supreme Court. “Who does the laundry in your house?” is not.
I had a visceral reaction to hearing several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee ask Judge Amy Coney Barrett personal questions about her family and how they function, including Sen. John Kennedy’s (R., La.) question about laundry. Some of my response came from my own experience because I was raised in a large family with seven children like Barrett’s. As one of many, you are continually part of a loud traveling freak show, and others are either impressed by how your parents feed you or repulsed by how many of you there are.
Whatever my parents’ level of stress and feelings toward one another, it never occurred to me that dads couldn’t help with homework and run errands, or that moms couldn’t out-earn their spouses. And this was the 1980s.
What I’ve learned as a mother myself is that quantity isn’t the only thing that makes family life challenging. Whether you have one kid or seven doesn’t impact the other stressors of raising kids. Some families have kids with special needs, some don’t earn enough money to get by easily, some lack access to quality public education, and many have one parent rather than two. In spite of these obstacles, many families are functioning and even joyful.
While sociologists and psychologists might be curious about what makes some families successful regardless of their circumstances, employers — and the Senate Judiciary Committee — should not ask. Hiring based on age, race, disability, or religion is prohibited by federal law, and employers are discouraged from asking questions targeting these issues. Questions about your intimate family life should be off-limits, too, because they have no bearing on job performance or qualifications.
Take a minute to reflect on your own experience. If you are a man — even a man with seven children — you have likely not confronted prying and sexist questions in an interview. Needless to say, male Supreme Court nominees have not been asked: Who does your laundry?
Women, on the other hand, regularly face questions and speculation about who does what in their households. Maybe not officially in interviews, but throughout their lives as working people, women are held to a different, perhaps unofficial standard. When women leave work early to pick up a sick child, it’s an imposition. When men do the same, we consider them hero dads. The fact that lists like Fortune’s Best Workplaces for Women 2020 exist is evidence that not all workplaces are friendly to the needs of women and their families, and sexism shapes work in our nation. And let’s face it — women still perform the vast majority of child care and laundry in households today.
Please do not miss the irony of this moment, either. According to the White House, Barrett’s nomination is supposed to serve as a step forward for women’s rights. It’s fair to take issue with the historical lack of diversity in the Supreme Court that makes the nomination of a woman a recent phenomenon and with the timing of this process so close to the election. It’s equally fair to take issue with some of the nominee’s views. What isn’t fair is to interrogate how she manages her children alongside her job. Frankly, that’s no one’s business.
As women, we have a role to play in changing society’s views on families. We need to speak out against sexism when we see or experience it. It wasn’t lost on me that while there were a number of questions Judge Barrett chose not to answer, she politely answered all of these.
I get it. The work in raising kids — especially for those of us who have done it without the financial benefits the Barrett household clearly has — is a point of pride. When we look at our family and are proud of their accomplishments, or climb into bed at the end of the day thinking, “Thank goodness we made it through that,” we feel an urge to celebrate the wins both big and small. The skills parents develop in maintaining family life really do make them great team players, employees, and problem-solvers. There’s nothing wrong with genuinely celebrating the successes of, and skills required by, family life.
But scrutinizing the roles individuals play in their families is not an appropriate line of questioning during the hiring process, or after — especially when that scrutiny is selectively brought to women.
Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.