Chief Justice’s Wife Talks About Life Since Holy Cross
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 – Jane Sullivan Roberts, wife of John Roberts who was confirmed as Chief Justice in September, received media attention during her husband’s confirmation hearings because of her involvement with Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion feminist group.
Ms. Roberts, 50, is a partner at Washington’s Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm and the mother of two children, Josie, 5, and Jack, 4. She is an alumna of the College of the Holy Cross and serves on its alumni board. She recently was interviewed by Telegram and Gazette Washington correspondent Jean Chemnick.
Q: Tell me a little bit about growing up in the Bronx.
Jane Sullivan Roberts: Well, I had two sisters and a brother, and we grew up on the same block where my father grew up. He was born in the house next door. It was a neighborhood with many, many families with three generations of the same family living on the same block. Some families even had four generations.
It was very cohesive. It was almost exclusively Catholic, and life revolved around our church and our school.
All my grandparents were from Ireland, and my mother was from Ireland, and our neighborhood was Irish and Italian. We had many relations there, and people who knew each other from Ireland or got to know each other in this country. Irish and Italian got to know each other in this country. All the generations lived together.
Q: Why did you decide to go to Holy Cross? I know you were in the first class that included women. Did that seem kind of daunting?
A: [I was] hardly aware that it had been an all-male college. It had great academics. It was in New England, it had a strong sports intramural program. It was Catholic, and it seemed to be a caring place.
Q: Once you were there, was there any resentment from the guys that there were women around?
A: No I didn’t feel it at all. I felt incredibly welcomed. As soon as we got there, we had a floor by floor meeting in the dorms, and the head [resident assistants] who had transferred to the school, were asking us at the behest of the administration “what can the college do to make you feel more comfortable?”
And it got down to details like different kinds of soap dishes in the bathrooms. In the library-the way the old library was set up-to get downstairs, to the stacks where you might get a very quiet desk, you had to walk down the main hall, the main reading room, and there were oak tables lined up. As a young woman as you walked down the aisle, heads turned and that was a little embarrassing. And we mentioned it. It wasn’t a complaint, but we mentioned it, and a new staircase was opened up. It took some construction to do that.
They changed the food. They were used to feeding big men, and we all put on ten pounds the first semester and we went home and our mothers complained. They changed, and they offered skim milk, yogurt, salads. You felt that the college was really trying to accommodate us at different levels.
Q: You played intramural sports, didn’t you?
A: I did crew, yes. Everything was new, and we got the cast off boy’s [junior varsity] boat. We had to raise money for a boat, right? We didn’t have a boat. We got the cast off, and we had a coach. And likewise, the women’s basketball team was kind of scrambling for resources.
The college was figuring out how to accommodate all of us. They didn’t have a master plan worked out before we got here, in these details, you know like sports. But you know, the country was figuring it out. Title IX came out, and the country, along with Holy Cross, was trying to figure out how to provide more facilities for women.
Q: What was the most fun you had in college?
A: Dancing. I love to dance. We went lots of places. The dorms had parties, and we could dance in the dorms. So that was regular weekend fare. I would go-generally late in the evening-and dance for a couple of hours. And then we had a few formal balls-about three or four each year-and we’d get dressed up, long dresses, and we danced. And we had the Boston Navy Band play big band music-it was just fabulous. Instead of just waiting . for some guy to ask us to the dance — more importantly, a guy who couldn’t dance — what we did is, we invited the guys to the dance, and as a condition, we said that you have to practice for a week with us. So every night at 11 o’clock in our dorm we would hold a practice session. So by the time we got to the dance everybody was primed, and we just had a great time.
Q: Did you consider yourself a feminist back then?
A: Yes, I did. I certainly did. I believed in equal opportunities for women. And I think I lived it out. I would attend feminist meetings-we had a feminist group on campus. I wouldn’t call myself a leader of that group, but I think I might have been considered a leader of women, if you get the distinction.
Q: You were a math major, but you studied education in Australia. Did you think you wanted to be a math teacher?
A: I wasn’t quite sure, I was just good [at math] and liked it. I wasn’t very career oriented in college. Most of my contemporaries were not very career oriented in those days, compared with today’s students.
Q: When did you decide on your career?
A: My mother decided I needed to decide. I went [to Australia] for one year, and then I decided to stay for a second, I was having such a great time and I stayed a third, I was having such a great time. She wrote me a letter, “when are you coming home and getting on with your life?”
Q: What did you study in graduate school at Brown?
A: Applied mathematics.
Q: Did you know you wanted to go into technology law when you were at Georgetown law school.
A: Fast forward a little bit through law school. When I first came here [to Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman] I was assigned to litigation cases involved in the nuclear industry, because they thought “well math, you must know something about technology, science.” Well of course I didn’t, but I could learn. I guess what math taught you is that if you look at a text book at the beginning of the year you could hardly read it, at the end of the year you’d mastered it. Math taught you you could learn anything.
Q: So, my understanding of what Catholicism taught, at least traditionally, was that women should be a wife and a mother, and not necessarily have a career. That seems to conflict with feminism. Is there a conflict?
A: Going back to the early days of Christianity, women joined the church in droves because what it allowed them was an avenue, apart from marriage and children, to join a religious life, a respectable alternative to marriage and children. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s really a calling-what your calling is in life. I think it’s a misperception that the Catholic Church said a woman’s only role is wife and mother.
And if you fast forward. to the beginning of the 20th century, where could a woman head a hospital, or a primary school or college, but in the religious? If you went to the secular, it was all headed by men. So the Catholic church for women provided one of the few-I don’t want to say only, that’s too strong-few avenues for the use of women’s other talents.
There is a calling, a certain internal nature for women, our biology allows us to be wives and mothers. We don’t have to choose to be a wife or mother, but its something we can do, and most women do in fact choose that.
Pope John Paul has written about this extensively, that women should be allowed to express their other talents, consistent with being wives and mothers. Women want to be wives and mothers, and also want to express other talents that are not necessarily called forth as a wife and a mother, and what Pope John Paul says is that we need a restructuring of our society to allow women to express those talents in ways consistent with being a wife and mother as well, for the full satisfaction of the woman.
And its very like what a number of feminists have said, as well, about I think the yearning of many women today who are in fulltime jobs and are feeling very, very pressed in their roles of wives and mothers. And [many] women who are home, [feel] that they don’t have an outlet for their other talents. Women who are part-time seem to be able to strike a balance.
Q: But you’re a partner. You must have worked full-time at some point.
A: I worked full-time until the children arrived in 2000. I worked very hard.
Q: Why did you decide to adopt?
A: We couldn’t have children biologically. I had always wanted to adopt, anyway, but I had envisioned it as being part of maybe having eight children, and some would be adopted. I had read a book as a child called the family that nobody wanted where they adopted 30 or 60 children, I don’t remember how many.and I thought, whatever family I had, we could always make room for another child.
Q: How did you and Justice Roberts meet?
A : In a beach house in Delaware. I love to swim, and I love the ocean. . [In 1986] I brought a number of friends from Shaw Pittman, and we joined a beach house that had been started by a friend over at Hogan and Hartson [the law firm for which John Roberts worked].
But he was not really quite the beach-goer that I was. He preferred to play golf, so we didn’t meet until ’91.
Q: When did you realize you were falling in love with him?
A: When I came back from Australia in ’93 we met again. A friend was going into the Clinton administration, and we were having a dinner party to celebrate her-she was going to be deputy general counsel for [the Department of] Energy, which was a big deal-so the beach house group. had a dinner here to celebrate and that’s when I met John again, and I liked him. And we started to date.
Q: Did you know ahead of time that your husband was being nominated to the Supreme Court?
A: He knew at 12:35 the day it was announced on TV. It was announced at 9 o’clock that night.
Q: What advice do you have for young women, who maybe are graduating from Holy Cross now?
A: Do what you like and what you love and you’ll be best at that and happiest at that. There’s no one right path. If the right man comes along right away, don’t turn love down. Have your children. If the right man doesn’t come along right away, prepare yourself for an otherwise productive life. You can’t predict your path. But do what you love.