“Handmaid” Amy Coney Barrett is a Grave Threat to Women’s Rights

Edited Oct. 7 at 1:40 p.m. PT.

Amy Coney Barrett is a Grave Threat to Women's Rights
Amy Coney Barrett. (Creative Commons)

Trump’s pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court is 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett, a member of the charismatic religious group People of Praise, which preaches women’s subordination to men and until recently called female advisers to other women “handmaids.”

In fact, Barrett herself served as a “handmaid,” which was a term used for high-ranking women leaders in the group.

People of Praise has since stopped using the word because of the rise in popularity of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, but Atwood has said she was inspired to write the novel back in the 1980s because of the rise of groups like People of Praise.

Founded in South Bend Indiana in 1971, People of Praise believe that wives should submit to their husbands.

“This teaching, that the husband is spiritual head or pastor to his wife, is one of the most firmly held and foundational teachings in that community,” said former member Adrian Reimers in a book written about the group.

“The wife, as a good member of the community, has a prima facie obligation to obey her husband as the bearer of God’s will. In practice, this means that the two do not—indeed, cannot—relate as equals. His will reveals God’s to her, whereas her will is merely human. The two cannot meet as equals, because the husband always has divine authority on his side.”

People of Praise, which has about 1700 mostly Catholic members in 22 cities across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, oppose premarital sex, LGBT rights and abortion. But there are plenty of other indications of Barrett’s opposition to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

As a law professor at Notre Dame School of Law, Barrett was a member of a University anti-abortion group called “Faculty for Life.” In 2013, she said at a Notre Dame event that she believes life begins at conception. In a 2015 Texas Law Review article, Barrett opposed the idea that courts should always uphold precedent, referring to Roe v. Wade.

Amy Coney Barrett is a Grave Threat to Women's Rights
Judge Barrett at her swearting-in ceremony on February 23, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

As a 7th Circuit Court Judge, she ruled against abortion rights in a case involving restrictions targeting pregnancy conditions or populations of women and in a case involving restrictions on young women’s access to abortion.

Barrett has also supported the rights of men accused of sexual assault. Last year in Doe v. Purdue University, she wrote an opinion allowing a male student accused of sexually assaulting a female student to sue for alleged violations of the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  In Purdue, Barrett treats the schools’ efforts to enforce survivors’ Title IX rights as evidence of anti-male bias.

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Amy Coney Barrett Would Destroy Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy

Her belief in female subordination could lead her to fundamentally undermine the legacy of the justice she seeks to replace.

As founder and director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a series of cases in the 1970s that established that sex discriminatory laws violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The confirmation of Barrett would endanger that precedent.

Barrett is a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group that advocates “originalism” or “textualism,” which means looking to the intent of the Constitution’s authors for its meaning.

She clerked on the Supreme Court for former Associate Justice Antonin Scalia—also a Federalist Society member. Scalia believed that the equal protection guarantee should not apply to sex discrimination because of that was not the original intent of Congress when they adopted the equal protection guarantee after the Civil War.

Amy Coney Barrett is a Grave Threat to Women's Rights
Barrett clerked for Antonin Scalia (pictured), who led the conservative wing of the Supreme Court before his death in 2016, and described him as her mentor. (Wikimedia Commons)

“You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society,” he stated in a 2011 interview. “The only issue is whether it prohibits [sex discrimination]. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey, we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws.”

Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are current or former members of the Federalist Society. Coney Barrett would make it six. That supermajority on the Court could easily follow Scalia’s reasoning and obliterate Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of constitutional protection for women’s equality.

In fact, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) has called Barrett a “female Scalia.”

“She clerked for him, studied constitutional law under him, and is cut out of the same mold,” says Johnson.

The Court is also likely to see a case involving the Trump administration’s effort to block the recently-ratified Equal Rights Amendment, which would add explicit protection for women’s rights into the Constitution. The U.S. remains one of the few countries in the entire world without an explicit ban sex discrimination.

While abortion rights are at stake, so is access to contraception, maternity health care, and nondiscrimination in insurance guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.

Amy Coney Barrett is a Grave Threat to Women's Rights
A rally in support of the Affordable Care Act in D.C. in February 2017. (Facebook)

In 2012, Barrett signed a letter sponsored by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty that objected to contraceptive coverage under the ACA.

And in 2017, she criticized Chief Justice John Roberts in a law review essay for upholding the ACA’s individual mandate, saying that Roberts “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.” The Affordable Care Act will once again go before the court on Nov. 10, when the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case California v. Texas.

A “legal career is but a means to an end … and that end is building the kingdom of God,” said Barrett in a talk to Notre Dame Law School graduates, according to a colleague on the faculty.

Speaking shortly after Scalia’s death, Barrett argued that it would be improper to have his seat go to a left-leaning Obama nominee. Now, right-wing Barrett is poised to take the seat of women’s rights icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and destroy her legacy.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.