The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amy Coney Barrett is a strong woman. That doesn’t make her a feminist icon.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a woman, but that doesn’t mean she will be good for women. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Let’s talk about identity politics. Actually let’s not — let’s never — because there’s no speedier way for a conversation about issues to devolve into a goat rope of gleeful accusations.

But we’re going to have to at least grab our lassos and try, because identity politics is apparently what many conservatives want to focus on as they tell feminists they must support Amy Coney Barrett.

“What happened to Democrats supporting women?” demanded the headline of a recent column in the Hill.

“You would normally have the feminists on the left lining up to defend her,” Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said at a news conference. “So we’re asking, where are those women?”

McSally was participating in an event held by several female Republican senators that had been marketed online as: “Speak[ing] on Democrats’ double-standard when it comes to covering women in public service.”

The argument they’re making is based on the following understanding of identity politics: Feminists, claiming to be for women’s empowerment, are required to support all groundbreaking women. President Trump, by nominating a woman, has therefore removed sexism from the discussion, and now feminists are just whining hypocrites.

That ain’t it.

A more nuanced exploration of identity politics: Sexism exists, and women are better positioned to notice it, and be hurt by it, and build their politics around fighting it.

Feminism doesn’t mean, “I’m a woman, Amy Coney Barrett is a woman, no further questions.” It means, “As a woman, I want to support people who reliably support anti-sexist laws, and while Barrett is a woman, I don’t know that she can be trusted to do that.”

The other questions related to Barrett’s gender are irrelevant distractions. Forget about whether she is Catholic. It doesn’t matter whether she — like Joe Biden or five current Supreme Court justices — is Catholic. Forget about whether she used to belong to a group calling women “handmaids”; it wouldn’t matter if they were called Merry Maids.

If we’re truly playing identity politics, the question is not whether Barrett is a woman. It’s not even whether she supports women. The question is whether the judge, as a member of the highest court in the land, will interpret the law in a way that will allow women to support themselves.

Barrett seems to be a remarkable person. Beloved by colleagues and students, praised by fellow attorneys and former professors. At the GOP news conference, senators repeatedly brought up her role as a mother: She has seven kids, raised in a marriage she has described as domestically egalitarian. The whole Barrett family arrived in Washington, tidy and punctual and smiling, and it was hard not to admire them with an I-don't-know-how-she-does-it bemusement.

Conservative women, especially, have described feeling seen and represented by Barrett. “She shows that it’s possible for a woman to rise to the top of her profession while having many children,” one told the New York Times. Another woman in the same article said she appreciated that Barrett “represents the fact that not all women need to think the same way about the raising of children and family planning.”

In Politico, the antiabortion scholar Erika Bachiochi praised Barrett for representing what she called a “new kind of feminism,” one based on changing cultural discussions around parenthood and familial responsibility. (That, I feel compelled to add, is also a large part of the old kind of feminism: Work flexibility and equal co-parenting are cornerstones of liberal arguments.)

If the job of a judge was to be a role model — to live a good life young women could view as an option for their own lives — then, yes, without question, put Barrett on the Supreme Court. But that, of course, is not the job. The job of a judge is to judge.

And the job of feminism is to ask: Is this judgment making the country a more equal place? Is this ruling supporting all genders in making decisions for their own lives, without being encumbered by discrimination? Does this judge accept that women should get to have the same mastery over their bodies that men have always had over their own? That members of the LGBTQ community should have the same rights to marriage, adoption or employment as straight people?

On at least some of those topics, one can make reasonable assumptions. We can assume Barrett will support overturning or weakening Roe v. Wade and other abortion-related legislation; Trump promised that any of his justices would. “I am putting pro-life justices on the court,” he said in 2016. Prominent antiabortion groups, like the Susan B. Anthony List, have loudly cheered her nomination. Recently, a newspaper advertisement surfaced from 2006 — an open letter demanding “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade,” which Barrett had signed. Another 2013 ad, written by Notre Dame faculty and staff and also containing her name as a signatory, called for “the unborn to be protected into law.” She was a member of the university’s “Faculty for Life” group until 2016.

Meanwhile, progressive groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBTQ civil rights organization, and the National Organization for Women have released statements of alarm, expressing concern over Barrett’s previous statements on the Affordable Care Act — which had codified free birth control — and the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.

Many scholars have now dedicated copious column inches to calling liberals hysterical, or saying they have nothing to fear in Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. I guess it’s technically possible that Barrett, at her confirmation hearings, might argue persuasively that her views on Roe v. Wade have changed since 2006. Or since 2013. Or 2016.

It seems more likely, though, that after years of promising to take away reproductive freedom or curtail the rights of transgender people, and after publicly lobbying for a Supreme Court amenable to these goals, conservatives have found someone they feel will get it done.

And hallelujah, she’s a woman.

How could this strong, capable, admirable woman be Bad for Women?

This seems to be the rhetorical checkmate conservatives believe they have achieved with this nomination. It reflects an understanding of feminist thought that believes empowering a woman and empowering women are the same thing.

In fact, the rhetorical question — “How can you be a feminist if you don’t support this woman?” — has an easy answer: “We don’t have to support giving one of the most powerful jobs in the country to a woman who would use the job to take away rights of other women.”

It has been fascinating throughout this two-week burnishing of Barrett’s credentials to see how many times her supporters talk about “choice.” Specifically, the choices Barrett made for her own family, the choices she made for her own career.

This only highlights the fallacy of conflating what one woman would choose for herself and what she would mandate for others. Women should feel absolutely free to plan their own families. Women should be able to have one or three or eight children. They should also be able to have none.

A feminist on the Supreme Court would support all of these possibilities; an antiabortion justice who happens to be a woman would curtail them.

At the GOP senators’ news conference, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) — apparently with no irony — invoked Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Judge Barrett’s pathway, her journey, has . . . benefited from the journey and decisions of Justice Ginsburg.”

Ginsburg was beloved among liberal women because her work opened up doors for the women who came behind her. How dispiriting to fear that the next woman to walk through them might shut them behind her. There’s a reason Ginsburg’s dying wish reportedly was that her successor be named by the next president, not that the successor be a woman.

“When we look at Judge Barrett, we see an accomplished woman,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). “We see a brilliant jurist. We see a nice person. We see someone who has been able to balance her family life with a husband and seven children.”

Fischer is correct. We do see all of those things. What we don’t see is a feminist hero, and we shouldn’t have to pretend we do.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit