Yes, Amy Coney Barrett is a successful working mother. Currently a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett was nominated by President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court just last week. She has seven children, ages 8–18. Clearly, this is someone who’s doing well for herself professionally while raising a family.
But her individual success does not make her some kind of feminist superhero.
Incredibly, that’s the storyline pushed by conservatives and Republicans, who appear eager to co-opt the legacy of women’s rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Barrett’s behalf.
A piece in Politico calls Barrett “A New Feminist Icon.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee is selling shirts that say “Notorious A.C.B,” appropriating the affectionate nickname used for Ginsburg, an actual feminist icon.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, another successful working mother who has not been on the side of gender equality, tweeted last week, “If liberals actually cared about empowering women, they’d be applauding Judge Amy Coney Barrett - a working mom with impeccable legal credentials.”
Nonsense. Liberals don’t need to celebrate every woman who achieves power. Certainly, feminists don’t. None have taken to Twitter, for example, to cheer on Ivanka Trump, who talks a lot about being a working mother while actively supporting policies that are not good for women.
“I think it speaks to the success of the modern feminist movement that conservatives think their best move is to co-opt it.”
Feminism is not about any one woman’s success; it’s about all of us being freed from discrimination and oppression: not just professional white women, but trans women, gay women, poor women, immigrant women, Black and brown women. Feminism is even interested in doing this for men, who are also burdened by toxic expectations and limitations.
“Feminism doesn’t mean anything that’s good for an individual, particular woman. It doesn’t mean one individual woman gaining power. Feminism is a movement for liberation from gender and sex oppression,” said Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist writer, activist and co-editor of ”Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change The World.”
“I think it speaks to the success of the modern feminist movement that conservatives think their best move is to co-opt it,” she said.
There is nothing in Barrett’s history that would indicate that she’s spent any time empowering women.
Barrett’s mentor was Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice who consistently ruled against gender equality. As an academic, Barrett is not known for writing or studying feminist issues. She is known for being pro-life.
There is no evidence in her three years on the bench that Barrett is anything but supportive of typically anti-feminist causes, including gun rights, limits on reproductive freedom and hostility toward the Affordable Care Act, which has brought health insurance to many many millions of women who are mothers.
In fact, from her short time on the bench, it seems Barrett’s conservative inclination is to rule against the rights of individuals, particularly those who are oppressed.
“Feminists support upholding Roe v. Wade. Amy Coney Barrett does not. Feminists support government policies to ensure equality and equity for women. Amy Coney Barrett does not. Feminists value the importance of affirmative action, environmental protection, and universal health care. Amy Coney Barrett does not,” said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “Opposing a female nominee who is antithetical to feminist principles reflects a commitment to the cause.”
The conservative argument for a feminist Barrett seems to center around the fact that she is a mother of many children who still managed to succeed. “She is a walking example of how young children and demanding work can coexist—I dare suggest even happily,” writes Wall Street Journal opinion writer Kate Bachelder Odell in a piece calling Barrett a role model for mothers.
Conservative Christian women, particularly those who are anti-abortion, told the The New York Times how happy they were about Barrett’s nomination. “She shows that it’s possible for a woman to rise to the top of her profession while having many children,” a Stanford Law School graduate and mother of 10 who heads a conservative legal advocacy group focusing on religious liberty told the Times.
But Barrett is a particular kind of successful woman; one of a very privileged few upper-income mothers who get to have good jobs with flexible hours. Most working mothers do not have paid leave or workplace flexibility or health care; they are struggling to succeed. They don’t need a well-off lady role model. They need policies that support their lives.
That’s something that even Barrett herself acknowledged in a 2013 talk at Notre Dame University when she said best way to prevent abortions would be through policies that support “poor, single mothers.”
Still, there’s little indication that Barrett backs policies that would support such women, especially because such policies include access to birth control.
Barrett has openly criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding Obamacare, which greatly expanded access to birth control and health care more generally and unquestionably helps poor women. She opposes abortion, which studies have shown is critical to the economic empowerment of women.
“Most working mothers do not have paid leave or workplace flexibility or health care; they are struggling to succeed. They don’t need a well-off lady role model. They need policies that support their lives.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t a feminist legend because she was a working mother any more than Brett Kavanaugh is a feminist legend for being a working father. RBG is a feminist hero because, as a litigator, she took on hundreds of cases fighting for gender equality and is literally responsible for getting the Supreme Court to put women’s rights into the Constitution. As a justice on the high court, she continued that project.
Conservatives are playing identity politics with Barrett, selling the idea that one woman is interchangeable with any other woman. That any woman who gets to the top is a win for women.
Representation does matter, of course, but it’s not the only thing that matters. “Representation without ideology is empty,” said Friedman. “It signifies an attitude towards women in which we are all interchangeable. That our gender is the only thing that matters about us. And that we’re completely interchangeable. Which is what patriarchs in the conservative movement believe.”
Nominating Barrett to the Supreme Court is also part of a longtime Republican goal of having a woman overturn Roe v. Wade. “It’s helpful for optics,” said Lawless, who pointed out that President George W. Bush passed restrictions on abortion while surrounded by “smiling white men.”
But those optics aren’t likely to fool many people, she said.
“It’s not like the Democrats, pro-choice advocates, and everyday voters who support a woman’s right to choose will feel any better or protest any less merely because a conservative female justice helped overturn Roe v. Wade.”