When President Donald Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court on Sept. 26, he praised her intellect, her credentials and her legal accomplishments. He also made sure to emphasize another part of her life: her role as a wife and a mother of seven.
“Amy is more than a stellar scholar and judge,” he said during the announcement in the White House Rose Garden. “She is also a profoundly devoted mother. Her family is a core part of who Amy is.”
Barrett also emphasized those aspects of herself, telling those gathered at the COVID-19 superspreader event, “While I am a judge, I’m better known back home as a room parent, carpool driver and birthday party planner. ... Our children are my greatest joy, even though they deprive me of any reasonable amount of sleep.”
On Monday night, against the vocal protestations of Democrats, the GOP-controlled Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Barrett to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. And Republicans weaponized her whiteness, womanhood and motherhood to do so.
Barrett is poised to be one of the most conservative justices on an already conservative Supreme Court, and at 48, she will likely be serving for decades. Her legal ideology and personal views are a concern to many advocates for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights and racial justice. In her personal life, she has ties to People of Praise, a fringe Christian group whose adherence to strict gender roles has evoked comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she previously served on the board of private Christian schools that effectively barred LGBTQ teachers and the children of LGBTQ parents. Rep. Josh Howley (R-Mo) recently gushed about how Barrett was “the most openly pro-life judicial nominee to the Supreme Court in my lifetime.”
Her voting record also raises red flags for these groups. She has a conservative record on abortion rights and immigration, and she once ruled against a Black man who claimed he had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment, which included his boss calling him the N-word directly. She also has said she considers herself an “originalist,” which means she believes the Constitution must be interpreted in the way it was meant when it was written ― i.e., during a time when only white men were considered Americans worthy of representation and power. And one of her first tasks as associate justice will be to help decide whether the court should hear a case on a 15-week abortion ban from Mississippi that could overturn Roe v. Wade.
But, the prevailing right-wing logic seems to go like this: She’s a woman. She’s a wife. She’s a mother. How dangerous could she really be?
“Women have long served as symbols ― wives, mothers, vulnerable individuals in need of protection from other forces. ... But they also leverage that to their advantage and make the movement seem benign.”
This narrative betrays both a fundamental misunderstanding and co-opting of feminism, and a cynical weaponization of long-held tropes about what the “right” (white) kind of woman and mother looks and acts like.
White women have traditionally been viewed as pure, delicate objects. They are nurturers, caretakers, sacred wombs ― less than ideal wielders of direct, hard power, but always worthy of protection by white men.
“[Barrett] sits at the top of an often unspoken but very real hierarchy of white womanhood,” said Seyward Darby, author of “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.” “She never let career get in the way of having a robust family and spiritual life, but she’s also smart and demure and has this wholesome embodiment. [The right tends to] put that type of woman on a pedestal. And by extension, that means there’s no room for other women on the pedestal — single mothers, mothers of color, women who decide not to have children.”
Throughout the confirmation hearings, Republicans used Barrett’s designation as a working mother as proof of her fitness for the job. “As a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said during the confirmation hearings when Barrett was questioned by Democrats about how she might rule on the Affordable Care Act. (Grassley has been a vocal advocate of dismantling the ACA.)
They have used her role as a mother as proof of her innate goodness. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) heaped praise on Barrett as “a remarkable mother” with “seven beautiful children.”
They have used her womanhood as a way to claim that the real marginalized group in this nation is conservative white women. “This hearing is an opportunity to not punch through a glass ceiling, but a reinforced concrete barrier around conservative women,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “You’re gonna shatter that barrier.”
And they have taken special glee in calling people hypocrites because of their concerns about the impact Barrett’s future rulings might have on their lives. “If liberals actually cared about empowering women, they’d be applauding Judge Amy Coney Barrett — a working mom with impeccable legal credentials,” former Trump White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted last month.
It has been repeatedly implied by Barrett’s supporters that criticism of this particular woman is an attack on all women and all mothers, regardless of how Barrett’s actions stand to impact other women and other mothers.
At the confirmation hearings, Barrett made sure to look the part, dressed in various shades of sweet pink and purple and burgundy. Her demeanor matched the aesthetic. She largely sat stone-faced and unblinking, nodding politely as the senators on the Judiciary Committee spoke. When speaking, she rarely wavered from a soft tone, making jokes about grading her kids’ at-home assignments, while avoiding answering whether she believes states should be able to make it illegal for women to take birth control.
“She wasn’t saying much at all in the hearing,” Darby said. “Saying nothing but seeming nice and seeming competent makes her seem unthreatening, if not likable.”
The projection of harmlessness worked. Before Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018, just 41% of Americans said they thought he should be confirmed. For Barrett, that support is 51%, including 32% of Democrats. There’s a reason that Kavanaugh’s frothing rage seemed to turn off more people than Barrett’s calm projection of mild niceness.
“Women have long served as symbols: wives, mothers, vulnerable individuals in need of protection from other forces,” Darby said. “They’ve been on a pedestal, a thing that people can rally around. But they also leverage that to their advantage and make the movement seem benign.”
Historically, women have always played key roles in right-wing movements, just perhaps ones that historians — largely male historians — didn’t quite know how to document. In the wake of the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected Confederate monuments around the nation and helped cement the “Lost Cause” narrative, which held that the cause of the Confederacy was a just one and helped justify Jim Crow laws. White women organized in droves against civil rights efforts and school integration. They led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s (see: Phyllis Schlafly). In the 1920s, the women’s wing of the Ku Klux Klan attracted nearly half a million members.
The KKK is a terror organization. And yet, the way that these “nice white ladies” in the WKKK pitched it, it didn’t sound quite so terrifying — which is exactly what made them so dangerous. According to historian Kathleen Blee, author of “Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s,” their recruitment pamphlets framed their white nationalist agenda quite benignly. They included questions like: “As an enfranchised woman, are you interested in Better Government? Shall we uphold the sanctity of the American Home? Should we not interest ourselves in the Better Education for our children?”
It’s much harder to argue against the vague idea of “better education” than burning crosses.
While the worldview Barrett espouses is by no means the same as the KKK’s, her symbolic power as a white mother and wife — one that can be used to advance a right-wing, pro-natal, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black agenda — is derived from the same source.
“If you can, not just whitewash somebody, but feminize them in a certain way, people are going to think that they’re better, that they’re wholesome, that they’re above the fray,” said Darby, referencing an idea that sociologists have termed the “women are wonderful effect,” which means that people are more likely to ascribe “ideas of goodness” to women, such as the idea that women (and especially white women) are inherently softer, kinder and more nurturing than men.
“As long as a woman is inhabiting those ideals, people tend to think of them in more positive terms,” Darby said. “Strategically, that has to be something Republicans were thinking about.”
The irony is, of course, that without feminism — a fundamentally political movement focused on the liberation of women and people of all genders and advanced by women like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose seat Barrett will be filling — Amy Coney Barrett would never be on the Supreme Court.
She may be a woman and a wife and a mother who wants the best for her children and her community and her nation. But if that community and that nation is envisioned as including only a certain subset of Americans, the end result is just as devastating for those who fall outside of those lines.