The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has produced a robust conversation about what it looks like to be a woman who is extraordinarily successful in work, family, and life. While their jurisprudence and opinions on many issues, notably abortion, are vastly different, the late Justice Ginsburg and Judge Barrett share striking similarities in how they approach their work, marriage, and family lives.
The question “can women have it all?” continues to circulate in the discourse. I’d argue that the answer to that question depends on a number of factors and the answer is as unique as the woman asking it. What does “having it all” look like to you?
For some women, it looks like achieving recognition at the highest level of your profession while maintaining a strong marriage and family life, as Justice Ginsburg and Judge Barrett have. For other women, it looks like the opportunity to pursue good work and maintain a healthy personal life—married or single. And for other women, the opportunity to raise her children full-time, and not manage a professional life, is having it all.
Whatever “having it all” looks like for you, Justice Ginsburg and Judge Barrett are role models for many women of various political persuasions, not only because of their professional influence, but because of the manner with which they’ve lived their lives. Their examples have given women today a few guideposts for success and happiness in life, work, and relationships that I think are worth highlighting.
Your work doesn’t need to define you—it’s probably better that it doesn’t
It goes without saying that we wouldn’t have knowledge of the details of Ginsburg’s and Barrett’s lives if it weren’t for their professional success. We also know that to reach the levels of expertise and success that both women reached requires a commitment to work that extends beyond the basic requirements of the job. Even still, both Ginsburg and Barrett have made it a point to share with the public the importance of their lives apart from their work.
In her opening statement at her confirmation hearings, Judge Barrett stated:
There is a tendency in our profession to treat the practice of law as all-consuming, while losing sight of everything else. But that makes for a shallow and unfulfilling life. I worked hard as a lawyer and a professor; I owed that to my clients, my students, and myself. But I never let the law define my identity or crowd out the rest of my life.
Justice Ginsburg would seem to agree, as she didn’t let the law crowd out the rest of her life, either. We know that Ginsburg was a lover of the opera. In an interview with Jeffrey Rosen at The Atlantic, Rosen commented to Ginsburg, “You love music so much, and you relate to it in such a powerful, intimate way. You told me that it takes you outside of yourself, and when you listen to music, then you can’t think about the briefs and writing that you have to do, but you just focus totally on the music.”
Ginsburg has also famously shared that she credits her success in law school to her daughter. She explains:
I went to class about 8:30 a.m., and I came home at 4:00 p.m., that was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day, and children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep. Then I was happy to go back to the books, so I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.
For Barrett, having time in her day that offers a respite from work seems to matter, too. We know from a friend's op-ed that she tends to rise at 5 a.m. to do CrossFit. She’s also reported her own involvement in her children’s lives—planning birthday parties, overseeing distance learning, and managing centers as a room mom in her daughter’s classroom. With seven children, the saying “you make time for what matters most to you” comes to mind here.
In a time when burnout and feelings of overwhelm and busyness pervade modern women’s lives, it’s worth taking note—if two women who’ve reached the highest level in their profession can take time to invest in their families and their hobbies, surely we can, too. And if, for some reason, you can’t find time or energy to put your work away to go for a run or read a book, to care for your children or visit with a friend without work weighing over you, it’s worth investigating why.
Is it that your workplace has no boundaries? Is it that you can’t give yourself permission to take that mental break, because anxiety will creep in and take over? Or are you in a job that’s not suited for your talents or passions? There’s wisdom in the truth “we’re given what we can handle.”
Of course, knowing how to handle what we’re given helps, too.
Make the more practical points of life work for your goals
In 2010, in an interview with Nina Totenberg of NPR, Justice Ginsburg shared a humorous anecdote that she said called out the double standard displayed toward working moms. Her son, whom she described as “lively,” was in trouble (again) at school, and the principal called her to come to the school for a meeting—again. Ginsburg says she was weary, and she replied, “This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls, and it is his father’s turn.”
Her husband, Marty, handled the situation. But Ginsburg noticed that the school called less, she suspected, “because they were much more concerned about taking a man away from his job.” It’s unlikely that Ginsburg was seeking to correct a bias as this incident happened—it seems more likely she was simply trying to decrease unnecessary interruptions in her work day (in this case, a seemingly harmless antic by her son), and her quick thinking achieved that goal.
Sometimes, however, making the practical points of life work for our goals requires more strategic organization.
In 2018, in an interview presentation for the Notre Dame Club in Washington, D.C., Judge Barrett shared a secret to how she’s able to balance her career, marriage, and seven children. Living in a smaller city helps, she explained. Using the example of her duties as room mom for one of her children, she notes that the short drive from her chambers to the school makes it easy for her to commit to things like monitoring centers in the classroom—as she’s not really away from her desk for that long.
It’s important to note that neither Barrett or Ginsburg are the type of woman who would say she does it all herself, either. Both women have husbands who cook more (and are reportedly better cooks, according to their children), and that’s not the only display of sacrifice they’ve shown for their wives and their careers.
The people you surround yourself with, especially your spouse, matter a great deal
Ginsburg said that meeting Marty was “by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me,” writes Michelle Ruiz in Vogue. Ruiz continues:
As a potential nominee to the Supreme Court under President Bill Clinton, it was considered taboo for Ginsburg herself to self-promote. But there were no rules against husbands lobbying on behalf of their wives, so Marty launched his own campaign for Ruth’s nomination. “I wasn’t very good at promotion, but Marty was,” Ruth told PBS’s Gwen Ifill, adding that he was “tireless” leveraging his own network of lawyers, media columnists, and politicians. After she got the nomination, Ginsburg said of her husband: “I have been aided by my life’s partner, Martin D. Ginsburg, who has been, since our teenage years, my best friend and biggest booster.”
Barrett’s affection for her husband seems to mirror Ginsburg’s experience in love and marriage. “I know I am far luckier in love than I deserve,” Barrett said in her opening statement at her nomination hearing. She shared in her acceptance speech in the Rose Garden that while she imagined their marriage would be more of a partnership, it’s turned out that her husband Jesse does more than his fair share of household duties. She elaborated:
For 21 years, Jesse has asked me every single morning what he can do for me that day. And though I almost always say, “Nothing,” he still finds ways to take things off my plate. And that’s not because he has a lot of free time. He has a busy law practice. It is because he is a superb and generous husband, and I am very fortunate.
Women today may understand more readily the value that comes with marrying a man who will truly partner with you in family life and unwaveringly support you in your professional pursuits. Ginsburg played no small part in ensuring we have the freedom to wait for the right man to come along, as her early legal work “paved the way for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which passed in 1974 and allowed women to apply for credit cards and mortgages without a male co-signer.”
Yet Ginsburg’s and Barrett’s examples in marriage remind us that when a man demonstrates he is worthy of our trust and commitment, lean into him—who you are as a woman will only become better because of that sort of relationship.
Of course, spouses aren’t the only people who have the ability to influence our talents, personality, and way of life.
The close friendship between Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia has been widely reported in the weeks since Ginsburg’s passing. Ginsburg said she and Scalia were “best buddies.” Evidence of that closeness could be seen in the fact that Scalia cried upon seeing Ginsburg after her husband Marty passed away, in their families tradition of celebrating New Year's Eve together, and even in the fact that Ginsburg once admitted she revised an opinion ahead of a decision after reading Scalia’s dissent for the Supreme Court.
In the weeks following her nomination, a number of friends, former students, and colleagues of Judge Barrett have attested to her selfless character, her intelligence, and her kindness. Barrett was once asked, “When it’s all over, what do you want them to say about you?” She replied, “That she loved well.” It would seem that so far in her life, that is the legacy she’s creating for herself.
Is it "having it all" or "giving it all" that leads to success?
Judge Barrett’s response to that question, which is a measure of how she believes she succeeded or not, made me wonder if perhaps the question “can women have it all?” is wrongly worded.
Both Justice Ginsburg and Judge Barrett have succeeded in work because they’ve given tirelessly to the law and their beliefs in the influence it has on American lives. They’ve succeeded in their relationships because they approached the people in their lives with humility and gratitude for the ways in which they have shaped them.
And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson we can take from Justice Ginsburg and Judge Barrett. They certainly “had it all” by society’s standards, because they gave each step of the way to get there.
By that measure, we don’t have to make it to the highest level of our professional fields to "have it all" (though by all means, if you can or desire to, go for it!). We simply have to look today, and everyday, for opportunities to give from ourselves what the world around us needs most of us.