As the world watches Amy Coney Barret on display in the Senate judiciary hearings, I can hear the sound of bewilderment erupting in many people's 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 while wondering what the heck you're doing. It's that scratchy sound of reconfiguring – like, something here just does not compute.
The disconnect has to do with the realization that Coney Barret has two conflicting sides to her persona. She is on the one hand a smart, educated, competent career woman, and on the other hand also a voice for some of the most repressive patriarchal ideas out there.
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. The Gatekeepers. We have plenty examples of women like that today. And they are just as perplexing, and perhaps in a way frightening, as anything we may have encountered in the Handmaid's Tale or the Senate Judiciary hearing room.
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 political lives to being the mouthpieces for patriarchal power. Clearly their careers have benefited from getting ample screen time as the faces defending misogyny. These women, like the women anchors on Fox News, for example, are reaping significant financial rewards for these roles. What they actually believe may not even matter. I mean, they might not even believe the ideas that they represent. They probably have lots of alternative facts about the patriarchy. KellyAnne Conway, for example, who yells and swears at her daughter and publicly shames her, hardly strikes me as a person genuinely seeking to embody Christian values of motherhood, even though she will use all her rhetorical skills to defend that politic. The female faces of the GOP are grating and irritating, but we may not expect any kind of moral consistency from politicians.
However, women who seem to be truly dedicated to their religious lives are a whole other species. I'm talking about the women like, say Sarah Palin, whose public persona is not just of a talking head but also of someone who lives the patriarchal life, in a way. I'm talking about women who openly preach and live out the religious patriarchy, while at the same time embodying a persona of active, engaged, powerful woman, a persona that seems to be at odds with everything they preach about. It feels so paradoxical. How could a woman so actively promote ideas about gender hierarchies while personally pursuing her own powerful position in society? It doesn't compute.
In Jewish life, we have plenty of examples of this paradox as well. Many religious women have advanced educations and strong career ambitions, while at home settling into gendered habits in both religion and family management. In Orthodox Judaism, a woman may be the head of the brain surgery department at a hospital but accept the reality in which she doesn't count in a minyan and her voice can never be heard in public. An Orthodox woman may even be a brilliant musician while accepting the reality that she cannot sing in front of men. A religious woman may be an outstanding athlete, but God forbid she will ever run in anything other than long sleeves and a skirt. I mean, even in circles of learned women like yoatzot halakha, women halakhic advisers, you will often hear the women heads insist that they are not challenging male halakhic authority or making actual rulings but merely communicating, acting as vehicles for men, the only genuine voices of Jewish authority. Women on the frontlines of change are sometimes the most ardent proponents of maintaining the gender hierarchy. The paradoxical dissonance that Comey Barret seems to embody – powerful personal ambition alongside a faint settling into assigned gender roles – is a far more common stance than we may even realize.
I should know. I lived that paradoxical persona. For a long time.