What to Make of Amy Coney Barrett's Brand of "Feminism"?

Politics Features Amy Coney Barrett
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What to Make of Amy Coney Barrett's Brand of "Feminism"?

What does it mean to be a “good” woman? Is it someone who can prove their utility to society? Someone who defies the expectations placed upon them by others? Or perhaps it’s none of the above, and none of your fucking business…? If your response to that question was an immediate head tilt and a dubious brow raise, then you’re in good company, because it hardly seems to be an appropriate question for Senators to be asking on the Senate floor while going about official Senate business. But it was one that hung heavy over the first three days of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing this week—three days that served as a masterclass in cognitive dissonance.

The fact that Barrett (and there’s no delicate way to put this) has a uterus was something that the Senate Republicans touted as one of her greatest accomplishments. Or perhaps more accurately, what they seemed to be saying in their high praise for Barrett and her family was that it was astounding how much she had accomplished in spite of the fact that she has a uterus. The possibility of her becoming the fifth woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court was something that Republican Senators clung to and referenced every chance they got.

On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham led the charge, complimenting Barrett for being a mother to seven children and vowing to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with “another great woman.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee shot Barrett many knowing looks during her own opening remarks, admonishing her colleagues on the left for not “jump[ing] at the opportunity to support a successful female legal superstar … who is a working mom.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, looking a little worse for wear, expressed astonishment at how much Barrett has been able to achieve in both her personal and professional lives “while being a mom to seven kids.”

In short, Barrett was being touted as a champion for the modern woman—a feminist icon, even—someone who proves that motherhood and a flourishing career can actually coexist. With enough hard work and enterprise, women can have it all; Barrett is living proof of that. She is, in other words, a “good” woman in the eyes of the conservative majority.

What the Senate Republicans’ framing of Amy Coney Barrett failed to address, however, is Barrett’s track record (here, I can’t help but think about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s hilarious reference to moose tracks): it doesn’t actually support women. Yes, she is a working mom—as was Ginsburg, and as are plenty of women who currently hold seats in the government—and that is without a doubt an incredibly difficult role to occupy. But to suppose that being a working mom somehow automatically gives Barrett a pass as a feminist is faulty logic. As a nominee for the highest court in the land, what needs to be scrutinized is—as Barrett herself kept emphasizing—not her personal views, but her track record.

Which is this: as a circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals on the Seventh Circuit, she’s ruled against environmental protections, for corporate interests, and largely in favor of laws that uphold the patriarchal, hierarchical systems that our Founding Fathers put into place back in 1787. Her legal philosophy is modeled after that of her mentor, the late justice Antonin Scalia. She believes in abiding by the Constitution as written during a time when white men were privileged and anyone who was not white or male or property-owning was regarded as second-class. So with this track record, then, is it such a stretch to conclude that her rulings will likely work to keep these damaging, discriminatory laws in place?

Barrett made it a point throughout the three days of intense hearings to mention that she has her own mind and that she doesn’t have an “agenda” when it comes to how she’ll vote if seated on the bench. At one point, during her own opening statements, she remarked with a smile that her father had actually encouraged her ambition when she was younger. That “anything that boys can do, girls can do better.” It’s a sweet sentiment that even the most conservative of men might support publicly, but the charm of that statement wears off quickly in light of the fact that her track record proves she would rather protect the status quo than stick her neck out for actual, intersectional equity.

Take, for instance, the contentious issue of abortion. Even if Barrett has “her own mind”—which should be a given—her views are tied to a religious and a conservative understanding of societal and family structures that uphold antiquated definitions of gender roles. Pro-life advocates suppose that the preciousness of life needs to be protected at all costs, even if that cost might be the mother’s life. Even if a late-term “abortion” might be the last resort for parents who recognize the mother might lose her life delivering a stillborn. Even if … and the list of hypotheticals go on. Barrett’s Catholic faith, which never actually came under fire during the hearings, though Republicans kept insisting that it was, is a part of the marrow of who she is, and so it matters less that she “has her own mind” than that her mind has already been infused with the sorts of values that would give those who do not have a uterus the right to decide the life and death of those who do.

And just because someone has a uterus doesn’t automatically mean that they will advocate for everyone else who has one too, the same way that parenting two Black children doesn’t mean that someone is immune to racist remarks or microaggressions. It’s the same “I have a Black friend/spouse/colleague” argument that folks have been using forever, and many decades later, it still holds no water. Proximity to oppression does not mean you get a free pass oppressing others.

Abortion isn’t the only issue that’s on the line should Barrett be confirmed to the Supreme Court, of course. There’s also the question of easy access to contraception, child care, and paid parental leave, issues that disproportionately impact women and limit their ability to advance in the workplace, be financially independent, and on and on. There’s the systemic racism many Republican Senators refused to acknowledge, but which continues to pervade every institution America holds so dear, including higher education and the workplace, and serves as a double bind for women of color who have to doubly prove their worth in the company of white men.

At one point during the hearings, Sen. Blackburn tried to paint Democrats as discriminatory, only championing “certain women” who abide by the same “narrow, liberal viewpoint.” In her words, the Dems view women who “won’t submit to the leftist agenda” as “traitors to our gender.” She characterized Republican women, by contrast, as “free thinkers, pro-religion, pro-family, and pro-life.” At what point, though, will she realize the irony of her words, and that the “leftist” hope that women have a say in their healthcare as full and equal human beings is not a political issue, but a human rights issue? At what point will she, and Barrett, and the hoards of conservative women who continue to call themselves feminists realize that so long as they’re clinging to the approval and leadership of the patriarchy, they’ll never truly be free? That wanting to be labeled one of the “good” ones is the same sort of backwards ambition that will garner pats on the head but never any actual change?

True feminism isn’t about filling quotas, the same way racial inclusivity isn’t about counting the number of BIPOC folks in a given group of people and calling it a day. We can’t suppose that a woman on the bench will make a difference without taking into account her unwillingness to change the very systems that make it so challenging for her—a white woman with a supportive partner and financial stability—to be a working mom. So while, yes, it is commendable that Barrett has juggled these different roles and done so successfully, wouldn’t it be even more praiseworthy to change the obstacle course that makes it such a rare feat in the first place?

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