Trump and the far-right are selling this notion of Barrett as a “conservative feminist”—but we’re not buying it and neither should you.
In last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, Republicans paraded Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s gender, fertility and faith front and center. Yesterday, they moved her nomination out of committee, with no Democratic support.
Barrett, 48, was held up as a role model for women everywhere, not only for her impressive legal mind, but also for being an ambitious career wife and mother; someone who mastered the ever elusive work-life balance albeit in a high-earning, two-parent household with her husband, outsourced care-taking, and extended family’s support.
The expectation was clear: Women should feel happy (and grateful) about President Trump’s immediate commitment to appoint a woman, and subsequent selection of working mom Barrett to fill the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. Besides, if you truly are a feminist shouldn’t you get on board with any woman appointee?
Not so fast.
Just as Black conservative judge Clarence Thomas’s nomination by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 to replace civil rights icon and the Supreme Court’s first African American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, the nomination of Barrett reeks of tokenism and is being marketed to women as back-handed identity politics.
You cannot simply swap one Black man for another and you cannot simply swap one woman for another—especially when replacing a civil rights activist like Justice Marshall or a feminist icon who valiantly fought against gender discrimination like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump and the far-right are selling this notion of Barrett as a “conservative feminist,” but we’re not buying it and neither should you.
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After a combined 40 years as women and political leadership experts, we know the difference comes down to what political scientists call “descriptive representation” versus “substantive representation.”
Descriptive representation simply asks: Does the representative look like those she represents? But substantive representation demands she advances the policy preferences that serve the interests of those she represents.
Barrett, being a biological female, is merely descriptive representation for women, providing a role model for other girls and women to aspire to new (often never-before-seen) heights, and normalizing women in the workplace, in the state house, and yes, on the Supreme Court. While we know role modeling matters, it is only one part of the equation for full and equitable representation. It most definitely should not be confused with substantive representation and the real life, negative impact Barrett’s Supreme Court decisions may have for women.
Now, Justice Ginsburg was not merely a woman selected for the highest court in the land. The “Notorious RBG’s” liberal voting record and landmark rulings—including Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) and Reed vs. Reed (1971)—changed the conditions and discriminatory environments for women for decades to come. That is substantive representation: the laws, rules, conditions, environment created by the policies, rulings and stances of this true feminist icon changed the lives and opportunities for all women, regardless of their poltiical beliefs.
As noted Black author Zora Neale Hurston aptly wrote, “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” well, not all women support women’s rights. In fact, many women believe that Barrett‘s positions could set back women’s rights by 50 years.
The GOP narrative argues that Barrett is a feminist icon in the making, or a new type of “conservative feminist.” This notion of conservative feminism is an idea designed to erode feminism. It is gaslighting, counting on us not recognizing the irony of relying on gender identity politics while outwardly saying that identity politics don’t matter.
Barrett’s previous opinions signal that she would reverse important rules that prevent women from being charged more simply because they are women, being denied health insurance coverage because of a preexisting women’s health condition (such as breast cancer, pregnancy, or depression) or being denied insurance outright because annual or lifetime dollar limits on coverage were capped.
In securing the nomination, Barrett would join a conservative Supreme Court majority that has made no secret of their desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—a piece of legislation that has been described by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health as “the most important advance in women’s health policy since 1965.”
With her own children ranging in age from 8 to 18, Barrett would be the first justice with school age children to sit on the Court. However, despite a growing number of women of every political party pushing for paid family leave, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is reason to believe that Barrett is a working mom who does not support policies that support women.
On the contrary, her history falls short on most of the feminism ideals of promoting women’s equality across the economic, social and political spectrum. Her lack of admission on what her ideological agenda is and how it could potentially overturn Supreme Court precedents that have granted or protected hard-won individual and civil rights, including health care, a woman’s right to control her own body and the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community.
And it is critical to explore the full beauty of American women, often left out of this conversation of what is feminism: Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, working women, gay women, immigrant women and transgender women who bear disproporiate burdens when accessing care and economic opportunity.
While she did not elaborate on her position on same-sex marriage, Barrett may have given us a glimpse. During the hearings, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)—who tweeted out that she would not support Barrett’s nomination for a myriad of reasons—called out Barrett’s use of the outdated phrase “sexual preference” to describe gay people’s sexual orientation during the hearings, to which Barrett replied that she meant “no harm” to the LGBTQ community.
Her admission that the murder of George Floyd was the first time her teenage daughter “experienced racism” seems to harken back to a dangerous “color blind” mentality, and her inability to say that there is longstanding precedent on systemic racism in voting rights should serve as a warning signal to all of us that she is not representative of the modern American woman today.
As Barrett’s hearings barrel towards a near-imminent confirmation with break-neck speed, there is little doubt that the far-right will continue to push their new model of conservative feminism.
We won’t be gaslit. Instead, we must have the courage to say what we see: That ultra-conservatives are using her gender—especially her traditional motherhood—as a shield to roll back gender-based progress.
This is not feminism and we will not be fooled. Just as descriptive representation is only surface deep, conservative feminism only looks like true feminism from far, far away.
Like Sen. Amy Klobuchar aptly declared during Barrett’s hearings: “To the women of America, we have come so far, and in the name of RBG, we should not go backward.”
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