Amy Coney Barrett Shows Once and for All White Women in Power Aren’t Inherently Feminist

With the Senate poised to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett days before Election Day, the future of reproductive health and other issues disproportionately impacting women and LGBTQ folks has become alarmingly uncertain. As if Barrett’s record of devout opposition to abortion and reproductive rights, marriage equality, and other basic human rights weren’t devastating enough, throughout her confirmation hearings, we’ve repeatedly been treated to patronizing assertions that because Barrett is a woman and a mother, her confirmation would somehow be a feminist victory. Ultimately, treatment of Barrett reflects a broader trend of oversimplifying the politics of powerful women across the ideological spectrum on the basis of their gender.

From the start of the hearings, conservatives — and even Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — have showered praises on Barrett for her sizeable, interracial family. Barrett’s supporters have deflected from criticisms of her harmful impact on women by pointing to her womanhood and motherhood, and even deflected from criticisms of the racist impacts of her stances by pointing to her adopted Black children. Of course, the suggestion that white people’s proximity to people of color make it impossible for them to perpetuate racism reduces people of color to tokens, and framing Barrett as a feminist entirely undermines what feminism really is — a political ideology that calls for equity and justice for those who are victimized by the same white supremacist patriarchy that Barrett works to uphold.

Barrett’s record includes signing onto a letter in support of overturning Roe v. Wade, serving as a trustee on a radically anti-LGBTQ Christian private school, and even voting against a district court ruling that found a Wisconsin county “liable for millions in damages to a woman who alleged she had been repeatedly raped by a jail guard.” Her views and decisions on policing pregnant people’s bodies, dehumanizing LGBTQ folks, and justice for victims of sexual abuse are all connected, and all reflect her opposition to bodily autonomy for people without power, privilege, and whiteness.

Conservatives glorify and frame Barrett’s status as a traditionally successful woman in the male-dominated legal field, all while being a mother of seven, as the epitome of feminism. But this narrative rings desperately hollow when Barrett’s record shows she would deny others — especially women, parents and LGBTQ folks of color — access to the same rights and resources that allowed for her success, and allowed for her to create a family on her own terms.

Women in politics can often either face scrutiny for not being “real” progressives by relying on what some on both the left and right call “identity politics,” and speaking about their lived experience. They’re scrutinized as if straight, white men don’t rely on the politics of whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity, and as if lived experience doesn’t guide crucial policies on reproductive health, civil rights, economic justice and more. But in other cases, women who support inhumane, harmful policies can weaponize their gender to divert attention from their stances, and harm those with less power while facing no accountability.

Senator Feinstein’s expressed support for Barrett last week seemed to shock many people, but it shouldn’t have. Powerful white women supporting powerful white women at the expense of people with less privilege should surprise no one — we’ve seen it throughout history, from the white supremacist roots of suffrage, to white women at the helm of eugenics efforts. In expecting Feinstein to act and advocate in a feminist way because of her gender, we rely on the false notion that women having power is inherently feminism, and womanhood is a political ideology rather than a wide-ranging identity. Feinstein and Barrett both show us how devastating women having power can be for other women, and changing the identities of the oppressors doesn’t change who the victims are or negate the oppression.

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But it’s not just Feinstein and Barrett. We owe it to women and people who lack power and privilege to critique and hold everyone accountable — including even progressive women in power. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg offers a key example of this, as her legacy continues to spark passionate debate about whether she was a trailblazer for gender equality, or an imperialist who supported oil pipelines and Indigenous land theft. She reminds us women in politics and positions of power are just as complex and capable of both progress and harm as men.

It’s also crucially important to consider Barrett’s whiteness, and how it lends to perceptions of her life and her family as empowering. Barrett’s motherhood is celebrated in the same breath that we shame and police women of color, and especially Black and Brown women, for the families they build. The people who celebrate Barrett’s big family are often the same people who actively work to deny public assistance, health care, maternal care, child care, and other essential resources to help women of color parent and raise families. They’re the same people who support welfare caps that punish poor people of color for having bigger families like Barrett’s, and they’re the same people who perpetuate racist stereotypes of Black and Brown mothers as “welfare queens,” or castigate immigrant families for having “anchor babies.” Barrett’s motherhood and family aren’t a feminist aspirational tale — they’re a reflection of white supremacy in our politics and culture.

By holding stances that would deny women and pregnant-capable people abortion care, contraception, IVF, and other essential sexual and reproductive care, Barrett denies people without her privilege the power to choose parenthood on their own terms, and upholds white supremacist, patriarchal barriers that also prevent them from achieving traditional success. And even if Barrett hadn’t signed on to a letter blatantly calling for the end of legal abortion, her demonstrated hostility to abortion rights would be enough to uphold myriad state and federal restrictions that already make reproductive care wildly difficult to access for poor people and people of color, even with legal abortion in place.

Barrett is supposedly the right fit to replace Ginsburg, who was a pioneering champion for gender equality throughout her life, because she’s a woman, per conservative thinking. But contrary to Republican T-shirts and merch, Barrett isn’t the “Notorious ACB” just because Ginsburg, a woman, was the “Notorious RBG.” Women aren’t interchangeable and carry a wide range of ideologies and experiences.

Ultimately, feminism isn’t Barrett becoming the fifth woman to join the Supreme Court bench, or Barrett capitalizing on white privilege and economic privilege to be a working mother of seven, or Feinstein being one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate. Feminism calls for dignity and justice for women and people with the least resources, who have the most to lose from people like Feinstein and Barrett having power — and it calls for us to hold all women in power to account.

Kylie Cheung is a freelance writer and columnist who has written extensively about the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, reproductive rights in the Trump era, and the #MeToo movement, with bylines in Teen Vogue, Salon, Alternet, Bustle, DAME Magazine, The Mary Sue, Feministing, and others; her book A Woman's Place is out now.

Kylie has written 2 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this :) I wish more people understood this. It’s so frustrating when terrible politicians working against human rights and for the continued destruction of our environment get widespread support because they’re women…

    Also: ACB’s family form (i.e. many children) also happens to be the ideal of the ultra-conservative/christian/right wing movements. Plus: It’s super harmful to the environment. While people should have as much freedom as possible when it comes to their private lives, we’re now living in an age where we simply cannot afford every lifestyle anymore. We all have to take responsibility throughout our private and public lives… But that’s another topic ;)

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