Nevo: Amy Coney Barrett is not a feminist

Lily Nevo, Opinion Contributor

Just over five weeks after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Senate is expected to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Monday. For many, the death of Ginsburg, who contributed more to gender equality than most others in history, presented the possibility that much of what Ginsburg fought for may be reversed, given that an already conservative-leaning court could be tilted even further right.

But many Republicans are painting Barrett not as the antithesis to Ginsburg, but as yet another role model for what a woman can be. During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “So all the young conservative women out there, this hearing to me, is about a place for you. I hope when this is all over that there will be a place for you at the table.” For Graham, and many other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, Barrett represents the ideal of conservative feminism: the woman who cares equally about her traditional family values and her career. The woman who does it all.

For Graham to tout Barrett as some kind of trailblazer for women is absurd. Barrett’s work-family balance represents much of what the second wave of feminism prioritized: the ability for women to exist outside the sphere of the home. In the work that defined the movement, “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan described a strong dissatisfaction among women who were suddenly confined to strictly maternal roles in the wake of World War II. While Friedan’s work was undeniably radical and life-changing for many women at the time, she only spoke for women in a very specific, and privileged, position. Women who were not White, college-educated and married were alienated from the movement, which painted staying home as the biggest barrier for women.

Where the second wave of feminism fell short, so does Barrett. The feminist ideal she has seemingly attained is only available to the privileged. Barrett was raised by two parents, one of whom was an attorney, and she attended Tennessee’s Rhodes College and University of Notre Dame Law School. Now, Barrett attributes much of her ability to simultaneously raise seven children and become a conservative legal superpower to her husband, who is able to split the childcare responsibilities, and her husband’s aunt, who has also cared for their children.

Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) proclaimed at the Judiciary Committee hearing that “The great freedom of being an American woman is that we can decide how to build our lives… We don’t have to fit the narrow definition of womanhood. We create our own path.” While women are generally no longer restricted to the kitchen, Ernst’s claim undermines the struggles of so many mothers to achieve the balance that Barrett has been lucky to find. She argues that it is not the systemic restriction of choice that limits women’s freedom, but rather their own lack of ambition.

In reality, women in American still face significant structural barriers to becoming mothers. The United States has no requirement for paid maternity leave and little access to affordable childcare. According to Pew Research Center, mothers are more likely than fathers to feel that they need to reduce their work hours or turn down a promotion, and that they are being treated like they aren’t committed to their work. Meanwhile, fathers are more likely than mothers to be employed even when the family cannot find adequate childcare.

Historically, policies that address the issues aforementioned have been opposed by Republicans. The leader of the conservative counter-movement to Friedan’s fight for women’s liberation, Phyllis Schlafly, spent most of her life fervently opposing affordable childcare, and it was not until the 2016 presidential cycle that Republican candidates supported paid leave. Additionally, Republicans have traditionally opposed welfare expansion and universal healthcare, the lack of which gives many women no choice but to return to work.

In the absence of liberal policy, conservative feminism is only accessible to the privileged. Republicans may uplift Barrett as the ideal that all women should try to achieve. They ask, “How does she do it?” but then they ignore the answer. They ignore the single mothers. They ignore the women earning minimum wage who barely make enough to pay for a roof over their head. They ignore the Black and Hispanic women earning 62 cents and 54 cents, respectively, to the White man’s dollar. They promote prolific motherhood but deny the mother any financial resources to properly raise a child.

Meanwhile, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) criticized Democrats for not supporting Barrett. “You’d think my colleagues (on the left) would jump at the opportunity to support a successful female legal superstar…who is a working mom,” she said. This extremely polarizing language stems from nothing other than Republicans’ attempt to signal that by supporting Barrett, they are the party that champions women.

To be clear, no one is shaming Barrett for her success. In fact, what she has managed to achieve is remarkable, regardless of what resources were available to her. What is concerning, though, is how she coopts feminism, but consistently overlooks the differences in the discrimination women of color face. This only serves to undermine the work of intersectional feminists to bring attention to these discrepancies.

Given her concerns on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, along with her opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision, it is clear that Barrett reaps the benefits of many women’s rights movements of the past – evidenced by her mere ability to be appointed to the Court – but she denies the less fortunate a pathway to even a fraction of the success she has found. This is what is so regressive about labelling Barrett a feminist icon. Conservative feminism rests on the assumption that what is equal is the same as what is equitable, and it ends conversation on an issue that has plagued women for centuries with a mere If Barrett can do it, why can’t you?

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.