The Irony at the Heart of the Amy Coney Barrett Fight

Republicans are pitching Donald Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee as a feminist icon at a time when the party is intensely unpopular among American women.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett stands with her hand raised before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty

Judge Amy Coney Barrett sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee today in a fuchsia dress and pearls, listening quietly as Republican senators depicted her as the ideal modern feminist. “How do you and your husband manage two full-time professional careers and, at the same time, take care of your large family?” Senator John Cornyn of Texas wanted to know. “I’ll bet there are many young women, like my own two daughters, who marvel at the balance you’ve achieved between your personal and professional life.” Barrett is “an inspiration to millions of young women in this country,” Thom Tillis of North Carolina said, and Joni Ernst of Iowa welcomed Barrett to the conservative sisterhood: “As a fellow woman, a fellow mom, a fellow midwesterner, I see you for who you are.”

Republicans have a strong interest in selling their Supreme Court nominee and their party as true advocates for women. President Donald Trump consistently trails Joe Biden among female voters, falling anywhere from nine to 31 percentage points behind the former vice president in national polls. “If you’re talking about the group that has changed the most in terms of who they supported, and have shifted from R to D, that’s college-educated white women,” Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University at Camden, recently told me. In other words, Republicans are hurting most among women who look like Barrett: people who are professionally ambitious and are likely balancing careers and motherhood. Many American women who fit this description may not think there’s a home for them on the right. Now in the national spotlight, less than three weeks before the election, Barrett offers Republicans a conservative model of feminism to point to, one in which women can lead exceptional careers, cultivate large families, remain dedicated to their communities and their faith—and be conservative.

Although Trump rose to power in 2016 in part by playing into white grievances, many conservatives still bemoan the rise of identity politics, decrying what they see as too much attention paid to race and gender in American culture. At today’s hearing, Republican senators weren’t afraid to accuse Democrats of sexism for questioning Barrett’s record and intentions. “Instead of entering into this nomination process with an open mind and a desire to understand this woman,” Ernst said, Democrats have used “a series of tactics to undermine, coerce, or confuse the American people.” And “women all over the world are painfully familiar with this strategy,” she added. “I’m struck by the irony of how demeaning to women their accusations really are, that you, a working mother of seven, with a strong record of professional and academic accomplishment, couldn’t possibly respect the goals and desires of today’s women.” Marsha Blackburn, the first-ever female senator from Tennessee, who insisted on being addressed as “congressman” when she was in the U.S. House of Representatives, went further. “You would think that my colleagues would jump at the opportunity to support a successful female legal superstar,” she said. “But as today’s increasingly paternalistic and frankly disrespectful arguments have shown, if they had their way, only certain kinds of women would be allowed into this hearing room.”

Feminist activists have long found their home on the left, fighting against discrimination in education, arguing for equal pay for women and men, and working to expand abortion access. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat Barrett may soon occupy, was the legal architect of many of these efforts. During Trump’s time in office, millions of women have participated in protests across the country, including those who donned pink pussy hats at the 2017 Women’s March, which is thought to be the largest protest in American history. The feminist movement’s longtime standard-bearers have not only opposed Trump and his Republican colleagues, but specifically warned against Barrett’s elevation to the high court: “Trump has demonstrated time and time again that he does not care about the rights of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, immigrants, or our most marginalized communities,” the National Organization for Women said in a statement. Barrett “is certain to follow this pattern.” Most urgently, activists believe that Barrett opposes abortion rights, and would potentially cast a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Advocates on the right have tried to counter this narrative with a different vision of female empowerment. Most of the leaders of national anti-abortion-rights organizations are women. They argue that abortion only hurts women, and that having children is an opportunity for women to thrive. “Goals,” tweeted Lila Rose, the head of the anti-abortion-rights group Live Action, along with a heart-eyed emoji, above a clip of Barrett walking with four of her seven children, all dressed up for the judge’s Supreme Court nomination ceremony at the White House. (The affair appears to have been a COVID-19 super-spreader event, where the president and a number of high-level Republican officials may have contracted the virus. Mike Lee, one of the senators who was there and later tested positive, attended today’s hearings in person anyway.) A number of high-profile Republican women have argued for a more conservative vision of feminism: Sarah Huckabee Sanders touts her place in history as the third woman and first mom to serve as the White House press secretary while lamenting attacks from other women, including ones about her appearance. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is often rumored as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, and she regularly makes stops at “women’s empowerment” luncheons where attendees cheer the idea of her serving as America’s first woman president. Although these female leaders represent a minority within the Republican Party, they reflect at least some American women: 42 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning women agree that the term feminist describes them, according to the Pew Research Center.

In her statement, Barrett recalled a bevy of cheerleaders who encouraged her career. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” her dad told her before a grade-school spelling bee. “When I went to college, it never occurred to me that anyone would consider girls to be less capable than boys,” she said. But she also emphasized the other parts of her identity, the qualities that make her so appealing to conservatives: her many children, her role in her community, her love for her husband. “There is a tendency in our profession to treat the practice of law as all-consuming, while losing sight of everything else,” she said. “I never let the law define my identity or crowd out the rest of my life.”

In Republicans’ view, Barrett’s combination of domesticity and professional success is exactly what qualifies her for a seat on the Supreme Court. “Long before you had your own seven children, you were also the de facto mother to many others,” Lee said. “Those responsibilities have undoubtedly helped you throughout life, establishing leadership roles in your career as a lawyer, as a professor, and now, as a judge.” And Barrett is exactly whom Republicans want to be talking about, as they desperately try to convince American women that they have a place in the Republican Party. In three weeks’ time, we’ll know whether they succeeded.