What Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court Nomination Means for Women

To understand the role Trump’s pick will play, you have to understand how right-wing women wield power

Amy Coney Barrett
Image: C-SPAN

Tomorrow afternoon, President Donald Trump is set to announce his Supreme Court pick: Amy Coney Barrett. If she is confirmed, Barrett will fill the seat of storied justice, legal scholar, and women’s rights pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died earlier this month at the age of 87. Unlike Ginsburg, who dedicated much of her career to furthering the very basic goal of gender equality, Barrett is a typical right-wing woman — someone who undermines feminism, even when she herself has benefited from it.

There’s no doubt that the GOP will trumpet the fact that Barrett is a woman and try to use her gender to bulldoze over feminist concerns: “How can you say she’s anti-woman? She’s a woman.” But as much as feminism is, of course, a woman-led and woman-centered movement, conservative women have also always been on the frontlines of the fight against feminism. And they have often succeeded in blocking or delaying progress for women writ large.

That is likely the role Barrett, who has only been a judge for three scant years, will play on the court. She has already ruled on abortion rights, both times in favor of restricting abortion access. She allegedly said in a speech that she believes life begins at conception, a common refrain from opponents of legal abortion. And she has said that requiring health insurance policies to cover contraception violates religious liberty.

There is little question that appointing Barrett to the Court would spell the end of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide. But invalidating Roe would likely mean invalidating the entire legal concept of a right to sexual privacy, which would put Supreme Court decisions at risk that go far beyond abortion, including those that legalized contraception, same-sex marriage, and consensual intercourse between adults of the same sex. Barrett’s expansive views on so-called “religious liberty” also suggest that what we mostly understand as religious freedom — that you have the right to freely practice your religion but that the right ends at the tip of your nose — might very soon be a thing of the past.

A conservative effort has been underfoot to radically redefine religious liberty as the right of any citizen to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws if they claim a religious belief. If far-right religious liberty advocates get their way, a hotel proprietor could potentially refuse a room to a gay couple. A nurse could potentially refuse to provide medical care for a transgender person. A waitress could potentially refuse to serve an interracial couple. A secular employer could potentially refuse to hire a Jew or could fire an unmarried pregnant woman. As long as the discriminatory act was justified by a sincerely held religious belief — that homosexuality or sex outside of marriage is a sin, that interracial marriage is against God’s will, that Jews are heathens — discrimination could be, well, kosher under the most expansive conservative interpretations of religious freedom.

We don’t know for sure how Barrett would rule on questions of religious liberty, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights. But her career and her previous statements paint a pretty clear picture of a far-right woman who opposes reproductive freedoms, including efforts to make contraception more accessible, who is hostile to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, and who adheres to a dangerous definition of “religious liberty.”

Barrett’s nomination is nothing short of a misogynist president setting fire to the legacy of the first feminist Supreme Court justice and burning up decades of progress toward gender equality.

Progressives often find women like Barrett flummoxing: How can you be a woman who has clearly benefited from all of the rights and privileges feminists have secured and still dedicate your career to undermining women’s progress?

To understand right-wing women like Barrett, it’s useful to understand the difference between hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is what we think of as misogyny: aggressive cruelty toward women or a view that women are bad — manipulative and greedy or perhaps using their sexual attractiveness to control, trick, and deceive men. When the president calls women pigs and dogs, that’s hostile sexism; when men’s rights activists claim women accuse men of rape for personal gain or when your conservative uncle thinks it’s funny to buy a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, that’s hostile sexism.

Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, accords women some value, often putting them on a moral pedestal (for example, the idea that women are the moral center of the home or that it’s better if women are full-time caretakers for children because they’re better suited for parenting). At heart, the argument that women are fragile and need to be protected is a benevolently sexist one. When abstinence-only educators say that it’s mostly up to girls to be “the brakes” on sexual activity or when rule-makers demand female modesty because it’s important for women to be pure and that women are just better at regulating purity than debauched, depraved men, that’s benevolent sexism. When abortion opponents claim outlawing the procedure protects women, that’s benevolent sexism.

Benevolent sexism, though, is still sexism — and often, hostile sexism is the threat for women who don’t comply when offered sexist benevolence. Women who don’t accede to female stereotypes and gendered constraints are nearly always met with significant hostility. For feminist-minded women, the end goals are valuable enough to push through. Conservative women, and often women raised in very conservative societies, may take a different tack, essentially deciding that benevolent sexism is preferable to outright hostility. To some degree, this is understandable, if not exactly admirable. If stepping outside of prescribed gender roles means there may not be a place for you — no visible path to recognition or esteem, no way to find social acceptance or rise in the social ranks — and a slew of social penalties and punishments stand at the ready if you don’t comply, it’s awfully hard to rebel. Better to follow the rules and be the kind of “good” woman who is at least treated with some respect and kindness than to break them and face hostility and isolation.

For conservative women who are bright, ambitious, and power-seeking, this gets more complicated. Traditional gender roles dictate that men lead and women follow and that this is not only the ideal way of things but the natural way of things. Conservative women who are competitive and desiring of power and influence are walking, talking evidence that this traditional worldview might not be 100% fact-based. Those women predictably face significant barriers in conservative spaces — consider, for example, that there are more men named John in the U.S. Congress than there are Republican women there and that conservative religious institutions often formally bar women from positions of power in ways that would be illegal if those institutions were secular for-profits. But one area where conservative women are given space to shine as leaders and activists is in anti-feminism.

When right-wing women can be used as cudgels against women’s rights, that both serves the interests of conservative men and meets the immediate desires of ambitious right-wing women. Throughout American history, the women who have fought against women’s rights have been both conservative traditionalists and overwhelmingly white. And they have framed gender equality as potentially damaging to women, who they imagine as vulnerable and needing special protection. Many of the women who were anti-suffragists argued that politics are a corrupting force and that the political realm is far too immoral for women’s participation. Keeping them out of it was a way of benefiting and protecting women, who were seen as the moral center of the home. The anti-suffragists also argued that by only letting men vote, women had a special kind of influence in the home. Once women began to engage in the political realm, they would lose their moral sway over their husbands or would simply duplicate their husbands’ votes. That was the benevolent sexist carrot: If you keep men in charge, they will continue being decent to you, and you will continue to be protected. The hostile sexist stick came in the form of suffragists being treated as ugly, barren harridans, tortured by force-feeding in prison.

Eventually, the suffragists won. But conservative women remain on the frontlines of opposing women’s progress.

This tradition carried forward into the backlash to second-wave feminism that hit in the 1970s and 1980s. Phyllis Schlafly, the head of an organization dedicated to blocking the Equal Rights Amendment, is its most famous figurehead, and she did, in fact, succeed in preventing the ratification of the ERA. Her argument was that men and women are fundamentally different and that women enjoyed particular privileges in American society. She thought making them equal would knock them off the pedestal. Schlafly, many feminists have noted, made a long and lucrative career out of telling other women to be homemakers. But it worked: The ERA is still not law. And today, many of the leaders of the anti-abortion movement are women who rely on the benevolently sexist view that women are vulnerable and need protection even from themselves, arguing that “abortion hurts women” and “women deserve better than abortion.”

Barrett is an ambitious conservative woman who has been able to thrive in this anti-feminist mold. She signed a 2015 letter affirming her support for the Catholic Church’s conservative teachings “on the dignity of the human person and the value of human life from conception to natural death; on the meaning of human sexuality, the significance of sexual difference and the complementarity of men and women; on openness to life and the gift of motherhood; and on marriage and family founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” Those teachings, the letter said, “promote women’s flourishing.”

To put that in secular language, the “complementarity of men and women” is essentially “separate but equal,” an argument that men and women are different and have different roles in society and the family but are both equally loved and valued by God. Men are leaders — women, notably, are barred from the Catholic priesthood — and women are helpmeets, nurturers, and support systems. This “complementary” model sees women as best suited to motherhood; folding it into the law could potentially undermine not just abortion and contraception rights but gender discrimination law more broadly (if men and women are fundamentally different in purpose and nature, then “equality” doesn’t apply and gender discrimination doesn’t truly exist).

Putting Barrett on the court would be a victory for one woman only: Amy Coney Barrett. For the rest of us, including the many conservative women who have personally and professionally benefitted from feminist gains, Barrett’s nomination is nothing short of a misogynist president setting fire to the legacy of the first feminist Supreme Court justice and burning up decades of progress toward gender equality.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store