Problematic Women: Judge Amy Coney Barrett Maintains Poise Under Fire

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett exhibited her profound understanding of the law as she testified this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Ellen Troxclair, author of the book “Step Up!: How to Advocate Like a Woman,” joins this episode of “Problematic Women” to discuss the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and why Barrett is qualified to sit on the high court. Troxclair also discusses the organization Women’s March and its opposition to Barrett, and why more conservative women should engage in public policy. 

Plus, we hear from four women who either clerked for Barrett or had her as a law professor at Notre Dame. They share personal stories about working with her and why she will make an excellent Supreme Court justice. And as always, we’ll be crowning our Problematic Woman of the Week.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am joined by Ellen Troxclair, author of “Step Up!: How to Advocate Like a Woman,” also host of the podcast “Step Up,” and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Ellen, thank you so much for being here.

Ellen Troxclair: Of course, I’m excited to chat.

Allen: Now, you have such an interesting story about how you got involved in the world of public policy and being an active, conservative female voice in your city. Could you just give us a little bit of your background, of your story, of how you got involved in public policy?

Troxclair: Sure. Yeah. After I graduated from college, I got a job at the Texas State Capitol and got my feet wet as a staffer for a state representative up there and really enjoyed that work, but certainly always enjoyed being in the background, being the person who was writing the speech, not delivering the speech.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the Austin City Council went through a dramatic redo of how they were structured, and it occurred to me that, “Wow, we might actually get to elect someone that we support with a little bit of common sense that leans a little bit more conservative to the very liberal Austin City Council.”

Just to set the stage, Rick Perry likes to call Austin the blueberry in the tomato soup. Yes, Texas is a very red state, but Austin is incredibly liberal and we haven’t had really a single conservative serving on the Austin City Council for as long as I could remember.

I woke up one day and, first of all, realized that none of the candidates running were really talking about the issues that were important to me as a young newlywed who had just pooled all our money to try to buy our new house. We were struggling to pay our property taxes.

They weren’t talking about our insane property tax growth. They weren’t talking about effective spending or efficiency or transparency or what we were going to do to not go the way of San Francisco.

I woke up one morning and said, “Well, I think I’m going to run for City Council.” I was definitely the underdog. I was 29, so when I was ultimately elected, I was the youngest woman to ever serve on the Austin City Council and was the only conservative as well for part of my term.

It presented a really unique challenge, but man, it was so rewarding and so important, and it has given me an incredible platform to talk about why it’s so important that we get more conservative women involved in policy and politics.

Allen: I love this phrase that you use. You say that there are sleeping giants of conservative women in America. I think that’s true. I think there are so many women that are conservative that maybe they might not even realize that they’re conservative, or they might be really hesitant to speak out and say, “I’m a woman and I’m conservative.”

Was that really part of the reason of what led you to write the book “Step Up,” was this desire to give voice to conservative women?

Troxclair: Yeah. I had so many women who would reach out to me while I was in office in a kind of hushed tone at our local coffee shop so that nobody would overhear her say, “I’m conservative and I’m really worried about the direction of our city. What do I do about it?” …

You scroll through your social media or you see the signs as you’re driving through your neighborhood and you’re like, “Man, am I the only one?” It makes women less likely to speak up.

I really felt like sharing my story about how I wasn’t an incumbent, I didn’t have a political science degree, I wasn’t self-funded, I didn’t have a lot of money, I was a horrible public speaker—I don’t know if that’s improved or not over the last five years.

There were so many reasons for me to not run for office. It was really, I want to say, a harebrained idea, but now I realize it was the best idea and I’m so grateful that I really didn’t have a lot of time to go back on my decision. I put my name on the ballot and I had no choice but to go forward.

Those fears that women constantly face, this confidence gap of feeling like they’re not qualified enough or they’re not well-informed enough or they’re not an expert on a certain topic, and therefore they’re not the right person to step up and run for office.

I found that the more people that I shared my story with, personally, the more confidence it gave them to say, “Well, yeah, I guess I’ve never thought about it before.”

On average, there’s this statistic that men, they either like to think of themselves as the right person to run for office or it only takes them one time to be asked. And women, on average, need to be asked to run for office seven times before they really do it.

Yeah, this is a very real thing that I dove into in my research for the book. But ultimately, I didn’t want it to be a book that was just fun to read or a cool story or interesting. I wanted it to spur action. I wanted somebody to put it down and say, “I can do this. I can join my local political club. I can volunteer for a candidate who I support. I can run for school board.”

Part two of the book is actually a how-to guide, how to actually get involved and make a difference. I’ve been just absolutely overwhelmed by the response that I’ve gotten from it, and ultimately, that was the goal, was to just have women feel like they were the person that your community needs right now.

Allen: I’m really interested of you listing those statistics that, on average, really a man only needs to be asked once to run for public office and he says, “I’m in,” and for a woman to be asked seven times, that’s really fascinating to hear that, how big that gap is.

I just love that you took a really practical approach to this book because I think we hear that a lot, that you should step up, you should be involved politically, but it’s like, “OK, yes, great. How do I do that?” I love that you’ve taken that practical approach.

Can you maybe just give us a little bit of a teaser in the book of some of those guidelines that you give for this? … How you can go about getting involved?

Troxclair: Right. First of all, I would just say, ask yourself that question. Not, “Do I want to run for office?” But, if you were going to run for office, what office would you run for? What office do you feel like is really important in your everyday lives, … whether it’s a local city council, whether it’s a state legislature, or the federal government? What decisions are the people in power making that are really affecting you and your family?

I think we get so overwhelmed with the news coverage of federal politics and the presidential election sometimes that we forget that the things that are closest to home, and it has come out really in these unprecedented COVID times, that really so much of the decision-making is being driven by the local school boards and the local city councils.

That’s the first thing, … don’t assume that somebody else is always the answer. Women are, I feel like, the fabric of the community that binds us together. They’re the volunteers in our churches, in our schools, they’re raising smart children. We’re doing so much, often with the support of really amazing and encouraging men.

I’m going to throw another statistic at you. Of all of the people who have ever been elected to the United States Congress, less than one-half of 1% have ever been women.

Eleven thousand people have been elected to the United States Congress, and only about 350 have ever been women, less than one-half of 1%. It’s not because there’s not smart, capable, qualified, conservative women out there. It’s just that we have so much else on our plate.

Circling back to your question of what can you do. Ask yourself that question. If you’re not in a place that you can consider running for office right now, think about your friends who are amazing and accomplished and doing so much, and would they be willing to step up, and talk to them about it.

If that is not an option either, think about the candidates who you support. You can block walk for them, you can donate to them, you can get involved in organizations like the Policy Circle, kind of like a book club where you get together with your friends and you talk about policy briefs so that you’re closing that competence gap and making women feel more informed and feel more willing to put themselves out there and talk about issues that are facing our communities.

There are so many ways to do it, it’s just a matter of what works for you and your lifestyle and in your family right now.

Allen: Thank you for sharing that. That’s really practical. I always love it when it’s like, give me something foundational that I can do today, that I can start doing right now. Thank you for sharing that.

Troxclair: I can’t tell you, I have heard from women all over the country. A woman just reached out from South Carolina saying that she had always been hesitant to get involved in politics and she got involved in her local Republican women’s club after reading the book.

[I] got another email from someone saying that they’re going to run for their city council after reading the book. It really has been inspiring for me to see how many women have been impacted by my story. …

It’s still all surreal to me. I still think of myself as that little capitol staffer, and it’s crazy that people want to hear from me and want to hear what I have to say because I still face a competence gap.

I still face, “Are you sure that I’m the right person to speak out about this issue?” But the constant positive reinforcement that I get when I do speak up from women all across the country really helps motivate me to keep being vocal.

Allen: I think it’s so encouraging when you see someone like yourself who’s a normal person, who’s a wife and a mom, and is just concerned about their community. They see what’s going on, they want to make change, and you’ve stepped up and you’re doing it, and that feels really empowering just to see someone normal who’s stepping up and making a difference. That’s a big deal.

Troxclair: I didn’t have kids when I ran, but I had two children while I was in office and a third shortly thereafter.

Allen: Wow.

Troxclair: I was challenged one time to think about whether or not I would have run for office after I had children, if I hadn’t done it before I had children. And it would have definitely been a more difficult decision just because kids are time-consuming and important.

But I got to the point where I realized—well, first of all, I didn’t have any choice because I was in office for four years and … we have council meetings that go well into the wee hours of the morning, till 2 a.m., so thank goodness for a husband who was incredibly supportive.

But I got to [the] point where I realized how great it was for me to be setting that example for my children, even though it was hard to be away from them right now, … I knew that they were going to be proud of me when they were old enough to understand what I was doing for them and for our community.

I guess I’m throwing that plug out there because I know how overwhelmingly busy moms are and I don’t want that to be a reason not to get involved. Take your kids with you. Take your kids with you to vote or volunteer or whatever it is. It’s an incredible learning experience for them.

Allen: Well, Ellen, I feel like that’s the perfect segue to talk about another mom, another conservative woman, who’s really making a big splash in the news right now, and that’s Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

She’s obviously been testifying all week long in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And on Tuesday morning, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein questioned her about her views on abortion and health care, among a number of things, and it was really impressive to see how Judge Barrett was very clear in the fact that, as a judge, she follows the law and interprets the law strictly and doesn’t allow her own personal views to be a part of that decision-making.

I would love to hear from you just your thoughts on her nomination and on what we’ve seen from the Senate so far and what we’ve seen from Judge Barrett.

Troxclair: Yeah. I think I really just admire her strength and her willingness because she knew that this was going to be a gauntlet when she agreed to be put forward. And kudos to her for not being intimidated and for stepping up. What an incredible opportunity to have the first woman ever with school-aged children serving on our Supreme Court.

This is a person that I feel like the feminist movement should rally behind. She’s an incredibly gifted and smart judge, she’s a mom, and only the [fifth] woman, too, [to potentially become a Supreme Court justice.] I just really admire her strength.

It is sad that we’ve gotten to the point that these nominations turn so personal so quickly, and I think it’s only a sign of how well-qualified she really is. It’s pretty hard to attack her on her record as a judge. I think she would bring really good insight and intellectual diversity to our Supreme Court, and I hope that she’s confirmed.

I don’t understand this talking point of women’s groups, like the Women’s March, saying, “We oppose her nomination.” How can you say that you support women and then be looking at only the [fifth] judge ever to be potentially confirmed and say that you don’t support her? It’s really disheartening to me.

And the fact that there have been 29 vacancies in the Supreme Court over history in the last year of a presidency, and 29 times a president has nominated someone to fill that vacancy.

President [Donald] Trump is not doing anything out of the ordinary. He is not doing anything unusual. It is absolutely his responsibility as the president of the United States to nominate someone to fill this position, and constitutionally it’s up to the Senate to say yes or no. We’ll see how they go, but I’m pretty optimistic.

Allen: You mentioned the Women’s March. They’re actually holding a march this Saturday. They’ve wrote on their website, I’ll read the quote, they say that they are “holding socially distant actions across the country to send an unmistakable message about the fierce opposition to Trump and his agenda, including his attempt to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat.”

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that they’re this open and blatant about opposing a female conservative, very qualified woman to the Supreme Court, but I must say, I was a little surprised when I found out that they’re pretty much holding a march specifically to protest Judge Barrett’s nomination.

Does this surprise you, or is it like, well, this is just more of what you get with the Women’s March?

Troxclair: Right. I’m like you, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I kind of was. I don’t see how they can oppose a female judge being put forward when they’re called the Women’s March.

This whole issue circles back to the theme of my book, “Step Up!: How to Advocate Like a Woman,” and why it is so important that we have conservative female voices at the table.

I am not saying vote for someone only because she’s a woman. I am saying there are a lot of well-qualified, smart, capable women out there and we need to get them on the ballot so that we have the opportunity to elect them because if we don’t and because we haven’t, we have allowed the left to overtake the narrative and put themselves out there as the party of the woman, which, as you and I know, absolutely does not represent you or me or many of the other friends that we know. How do we get back? And really it’s up to us to change it.

There’s lots of reasons why, and we can blame the media and we can blame this person or that person or whatever, but it’s up to us to change it. Right?

The sleeping giant of conservative women across the country who I know if they did, what is the one thing that they can do to get more involved in policy and politics and to make the other women around them know that they’re not alone in their beliefs?

And the more voices that we can have at the table, the easier it is for us to stand up and say, “No, Women’s March, you do not represent all women. We do support the nomination of Judge Barrett. We do support whatever it is.” …

I’m so tired, also, of women’s issues only being limited to reproductive rights. I care about the economy, I care about transportation infrastructure, I care about schools, I care about all of these other things that we, I guess, don’t get to have an opinion on because it’s not under the title of women’s rights.

And again, it is the left’s narrative that has allowed them to gain the support of a younger generation that believes that the right doesn’t have women’s and families’ best interest in mind.

Allen: One of the points that I find so refreshing in your book is that you say we can be fully empowering women while, at the same time, still honoring and empowering men, that we don’t have to degrade men in order for women to rise. It can be both/and.

Troxclair: Right. Yes. That is such an important point and I’m so glad that you brought it up.

Looking back on how I came to be elected to the Austin City Council and gone on to do the things that I have since my term ended, it was in large part due to amazing men who were at my side the whole way.

My husband, who was willing to take on more of the duties with the kids while I was at council meetings and support me while I was block walking on the weekends and all of those things.

My bosses, [state] Rep. Jason Isaac, I was his chief of staff before I decided to run, and he was like, “Absolutely, you can do this. I really don’t want to lose you as my chief of staff, but this is your moment.” He came and stood at the polls with me and block walked with me.

The narrative out there that women rising has to be at the expense of men, not only is it not true, it’s also not effective.

If you’re saying that there’s a problem that we need to fix and that that problem is women’s limited representation at all levels of government, is somebody going to be more or less likely to help you if you are berating them in the process?

Men are so important. Strong men are important to our society as a whole and our families and in all of these other capacities, but in order to get them on—I don’t want to say get them on our side because it’s not about choosing sides—but it is an issue that I think most men maybe aren’t aware of.

And the right way to approach it is to say, “Hey, would you mind supporting me if I made this decision?” Or, “Do you know women that you would think would be good for running for office? Did you know that less than one-half of 1% of all of the elected congressmen and women have ever been women?” Most of them don’t.

It’s a collaborative conversation. … Going into the policy side of things, it makes their job easier, too, because the thing that we all have in common is that we care about limited government and individual liberty and freedom and all of these kind of principles that tie us together as conservatives, and having the right spokespeople making the argument for those principles at the right time is what helps us to get our policy priorities passed.

If you only have people who look one way speaking on one specific topic, it sends the message that, well, maybe if I don’t look or act or feel like, maybe if I have a different hair color, or a different whatever it is, maybe they’re different from me.

If you have the right spokespeople available to speak up for those topics at the right time, it really benefits all of us.

Of course, abortion is one very obvious issue that, if you have a liberal woman against a conservative man, it’s too easy to give them a point there. Those men also have mothers and wives and daughters who they want to raise to be strong conservative women.

Again, it’s this argument of we’re all in this together. It’s an issue that we should be talking about. We need to figure out how we get more conservative women off the sidelines and into the arena, because that’s the most effective way to make a difference in our communities and in our states, but men are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

Allen: I so agree. Couldn’t have said it better.

The book is called “Step Up!: How to Advocate Like a Woman.” It can be found on Amazon, wherever books are sold. But Ellen, before we let you go, I want to ask you one final question. We love to ask all of our guests here on “Problematic Women” this question, and that is, do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Troxclair: It is so funny that you asked that because that is the leading question, and I think it’s Chapter 2 of the book, “Are you a feminist?” It tackles this exact same issue.

It’s so hard to answer this question. I do not consider myself a feminist in the way that the term has been interpreted, but I do consider myself a feminist in just the strict definition of the word, that I believe that women are equal to men and that I support women in their many talents and capacities. We got to come up with a new term.

Allen: I know.

Troxclair: Maybe it’s a problematic woman, right?

Allen: Maybe. Yeah, we’ll claim that.

Troxclair: Today, we’ve been so fraught with politics, it’s really hard to say one way or another, but I’m still struggling. When I wrote that book, I said, “We need to have a new term for what it means to be a strong conservative woman that doesn’t have to identify with the liberal policies that often come with the label of feminism.” We’ll work on that together.

Allen: Yeah. Yeah, we’ll work on it. I like the idea of just calling it a problematic woman.

Troxclair: I do, too.

Allen: Ellen, thank you so much. This has been so great chatting with you today. Again, for our listeners, if you want to check out the book, look up “Step Up!: How to Advocate Like a Woman.” And Ellen, thank you.

Troxclair: Yes, of course. If there’s anybody listening who wants to connect with me on social media, I’m easy to find. It’s @EllenTroxclair on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all the places. Thank you for what you do. I love being a problematic woman and I’m so grateful for this podcast and for everything that you do.

Allen: Aw, thank you, Ellen.

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