As the world watched Amy Coney Barrett on display in the Senate judiciary hearings, I practically heard the sound of bewilderment erupting in viewers’ heads. It’s like the noise that your Waze makes when you make a wrong turn and then she has to adjust her entire plan. It’s that scratchy sound of reconfiguring.
The disconnect has to do with the realization that Coney Barrett has two sides. She is on the one hand a smart, competent career woman, and on the other hand also a voice for repressive patriarchal ideas.
But she is hardly alone. We don’t need to go all the way back to Phyllis Schlafly to find examples of WPPs—that is, Women who Protect the Patriarchy. We have plenty of examples of women like that today. I’m not just talking about the women on the public stage like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kimberly Guilfoyle, or KellyAnne Conway, women who have dedicated their public-facing careers to being mouthpieces for patriarchal power.
No, I am referring to a different dynamic. I am talking about women for whom the patriarchy is personal. Women who live it while defending it. An Orthodox Jewish woman, for instance, maybe the head of the brain surgery department at a hospital but accept that she doesn’t count in a minyan and her voice can never be heard in public. She may even be a brilliant musician while accepting the reality that she cannot sing in front of men, or an outstanding athlete who would never run in anything other than long sleeves and a skirt.
I know this stance well, because I lived it. I was expanding my horizons beyond what my female ancestors did—getting an education, working, earning money, speaking out—while at the same time finding my place in the women’s section behind the partition. Keeping my shoulders covered. Participating in ritual practices where I did not count and my voice could not be heard. My head was making that reconfiguring noise but it took me a while to notice the sound, or to figure out what it was saying to me.
It makes sense: pushing back against your community and everything you’ve ever known often comes at great personal cost. Women everywhere pick and choose our battles. Look at how liberal institutions—women included—have tried to sweep #MeToo incidents under the rug over time. All women are in some kind of negotiation with the patriarchy. None of us has fixed our worlds yet, so we all choose to shut out the noise.
The issue Coney Barrett’s hearings evoked, though, is that the stakes are greater when women who are protecting the patriarchy enter leadership. Then, the contradiction can take a sinister turn. Religious women can use their newly acquired power to keep other women in their place.
Coney Barrett especially reminded me of learned women like yoatzot halakha, women halakhic advisers, who are breaking barriers while using their platforms to protect patriarchal Jewish practices. Yoatzot have been among the first women allowed to take a role that for generations was the domain of male rabbis—advising religious women on ritual immersion and halakhic menstrual “purity.” No matter how you try to parse these laws or how many books are written about the “benefits” of these practices, there is no way to escape the fact that they are based on ideas that are terrible for women: that the purpose of our sexual lives is to procreate, that our menstruation makes us “impure,” that there is no such thing as non-sexual physical contact between men and women, that men cannot look at their wives without wanting sex, and that women’s most intimate body care is under the purview of rabbis. For generations, women have been showing their stained underwear to rabbis to rule about whether they could have sex with their husbands. The yoetzet position brought a welcome change: women with questions about their “purity” could at least show their underwear to a woman instead of a man.
On a closer look, though, you will often hear learned women insisting that they are not making actual rulings but merely acting as vehicles for men, the genuine voices of Jewish authority. Like Coney Barrett, they are exercising “judgment,” and “power” but only to support a sexist structure.
I grew up with female gatekeepers. The Rebbetzin in my post-high school seminary who taught us that head covering was a law brought down from Moses at Sinai. The teachers who monitored the lengths of our skirts, who reminded us that we were not “obligated” to pray mincha because we were just girls. The nice young teachers who, in twelfth grade, took us on an exclusive and exciting field trip to the local mikveh, to school us in getting ready for sex in marriage. As if ritual immersion is all you need to know about sex. And then years later, the local Rebbetzin who gave me “kallah classes” that traumatized me in ways I could not articulate.
It is hard to break away from the patriarchy, but even harder when you’ve been indoctrinated by women, women who appear warm, and speak about meaning, connection, tradition, and of course God. I call this Indoctrination with a Pretty Face.
But female gatekeepers can also indoctrinate with force. My mother aggressively groomed us—my three sisters and me—for a life of servitude as wife and mother, and as an object that was pleasing to men. It wasn’t just my clothing, my body, my face, and my food that were managed and monitored. It was also my words, my behavior, my demeanor. A girl who ate too much, who spoke too much, or who stayed seated at the Shabbat table instead of serving, was bad. A girl who challenged her father’s ideas, who ate before her father ate, or who dared get up from the table before the father declared it done, was worthy of disdain. Embarrassing.
All this was to prepare us for marriage. “Behind every successful man is a woman” were words that we lived by. And yet, even though we were taught that women’s open ambition was ugly, we were encouraged to get an education. The same way we were told we must get a driver’s license, as a kind of protection, but we were never expected to drive. Women’s driving was considered unnatural! My father mocked women drivers, including his daughters, and would never get into the passenger seat when a woman was driving. Nevertheless, my mother ensured that we got licenses, just as she wanted to make sure that we all got a Bachelor’s degree, and even a part-time job if we insisted. It was a back-up plan, not to be confused with a career. I mean, the idea of one of the daughters becoming an independent woman was almost as appalling as becoming fat.
Somewhere in the back of my brain, hearing all this, there were screechy sounds trying to get my attention, but they were blocked by messages that we had the secret to women’s success. Plus, once you pay attention to the screechy sound, once you start to question the premise of your way of life, well, the whole thing can come down like a house of cards.
That is what happened to me, though the process took 30 years.
For a very long time, the idea that this whole identity was in conflict with itself was too hard to unpack. So I took down little pieces, one at a time. Took off my hat. Started sharing roles at home. Pursued a doctorate. Made kiddush. Sat down while my husband vacuumed. Fought for agunot. Added Miriam to the Seder. Drove while my husband sat in the passenger seat.
But the thing is—and here is where it gets tricky—even while I was sorting it all out internally, externally I was still acting as a megaphone for the patriarchy. I taught religious high school girls, spitting out the same language that today I find intolerable, rhetoric about the beauty of women’s modesty, the wisdom of the halakhic system. Once when a friend of mine shared with me that she had stopped going to the mikveh, I reacted with horror. She still reminds me of that, just for fun.
One day in my sophomore year at Barnard, I was in a lecture hall listening to a class about gender and politics. In a discussion about the evolution of ideas about women and child care, I raised my hand and said, “But everyone knows that children need their mothers. Everyone knows that a child who grows up in daycare is going to be messed up.”
You can imagine the uproar. People who know me today probably don’t even believe the story. But I came from a very different place. I could have continued on my path. Perhaps had things been smoother for me, I would still be there. I think that it is very possible that I could have been an Orthodox version of Coney Barrett. One of my sisters is a yoetzet halakha. Another sister wanted to be a doctor, but did not go to medical school because she kept saying (as I did that day in Barnard) that a woman cannot be a doctor and a good mother. Sometimes I would say to her, ‘Just do it, just go to medical school.’ And she would yell back at me, ‘I don’t need any of your feminism!’ Our conversations never ended well.
Today, we are no longer on speaking terms. It was my choice. And yet my sister’s story is also my own. The messages she got are the same ones that I got. Marry early. Have lots of kids. Be a good mother. Dedicate yourself to everyone else. Oh, and do all that while being thin, pretty, perky, happy, smiling, and servile.
Had I not been unhappy with my life, I would have stayed in that world. I challenged what I was living with not because it didn’t make sense but because I was being emotionally and sexually abused. And even despite that, I tried to make it work for a long time.
It is not hard for me to imagine how a woman can be both a career-go-getter and also a defender of her religious patriarchy. In fact, these personality traits may even go together well. Religious women are often good students—smart, diligent, hard workers. And not even just religious girls. It takes a lot to manage the kinds of lives that working mothers of big families manage. It’s a lot of organizing and thinking ahead, attention to detail, multi-tasking, and problem-solving. To wit, in Israel, Haredi women are considered outstanding employees. They tend to be efficient and punctual, they get a lot done in a small space of time, they do not stand around drinking at happy hour, and they are reliable.
Maybe it’s no wonder women like Coney Barrett go far. In places where diligence is rewarded, religious women are well suited. You don’t always need to be creative to get ahead. You sometimes need to do what is expected. That quality fits in quite well with being an obedient religious woman. Her behavior at her confirmation hearings reinforced that impression—she hardly articulated any independent thought, and maintained a resolve that enabled her to get through the grueling process without getting her hands dirty or ever sharing a single personal belief.
At the end of the day, Coney Barrett was well-rewarded for her performance as the perfect patriarchal woman. She demonstrated a deep and powerful reason why women—even smart, thinking, self-driven women—sometimes become the great protectors of the patriarchy. And that has to do with what they get out of it. For them, the system works. Not only does it work, but it offers compelling rewards.
You know where to go and what to do all the time. And while a house full of kids is a LOT of work, it is also at times comforting in its busyness. Predictable trips to worship are vital for so many people—less because of prayer and more because of community. Coney Barrett may love her “People of Praise” group where her highest position as a woman might be “handmaiden” as opposed to “leader” because it gives her all the same kinds of benefits that women get in Orthodoxy—community, belonging, identity, friends, structure.
Succeeding in the patriarchy offers what Viktor Frankel argued may even be more powerful than love: purpose. Gender equality is a nice idea. But then there is what really drives us.
Not all of our choices are consistent. I hear accusations in feminist circles all the time. You cannot be both a feminist and a mother of lots of children. Or a feminist and financially dependent on a husband. Or a feminist who gets plastic surgery. Or a feminist and mother of soldiers. Or a feminist and a Zionist. Perhaps all of us, in some way, are gatekeepers for parts of the patriarchy. Maybe it’s unavoidable. After all, the patriarchy is the very water we swim in. But in that water, we still have choices. Coney Barrett made choices. My mother made choices. And I made choices.
Yet if our personal choices are private, once they become public stances, it is a whole different game. If Coney Barrett chooses to embrace patriarchal lifestyles—such as her participation in “People of Praise”—she has every right to be in that place. But once she is a Supreme Court Justice, then she is not just a woman in conflict. She has ironically broken a glass ceiling, but only to use her position to inflict some great harm on other women. If the Supreme Court knocks down Roe v. Wade or cancels birth control coverage, then Coney Barrett becomes a damaging agent of the patriarchy. It doesn’t matter that she happens to be a woman.
Photo: Kai Medina (MK170101 via Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author, researcher, educator, and activist.