Amy Coney Barrett And The Cult Of Conservative White Womanhood

This week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, feel very different from the Kavanaugh spectacle of 2018.

The biggest distinction, of course, is that Brett Kavanaugh, the first of Trump’s nominees to make his senatorial case for a seat on the bench, was credibly accused of sexual assault. Those hearings were extraordinary. Raw. Kavanaugh, red-faced and raging, remains “indelible in the hippocampus” to so many assault survivors who watched the vile pageantry unfold before us those few days, we who have grown up in a society in which boys’ feelings and ambitions are so often prioritized at girls’ expense.

Judiciary Committee Republicans were eager for a more “civil” process this time around. In his opening statement earlier this week, Sen. John Kennedy described 2018 as a “freak show,” choosing a head-scratching metaphor: “It looked like the cantina bar scene out of Star Wars.” Not only were emotions then running sky-high on both sides of the aisle, but protesters had flooded the hallways surrounding the hearing room, some of them wearing the red robes of handmaidens; others sought out senators in other halls of government and pleaded with them to consider their experiences, going viral as a result.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has left those halls silent. What’s more, as Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore points out, “this time the nominee’s character and personal background are assets, not handicaps.” While both nominees were Roman Catholics and Federalist Society members, Kilgore writes, “Barrett’s background has served as both shield and sword for her proponents in a way that Kavanaugh’s did not.” Though Republicans tried defending Kavanaugh as a family man, a “father of daughters” — referencing his time as a girls basketball coach — it wasn’t to nearly the same effect.

Conservatives have long accused Democrats of harboring anti-Catholic bias against Barrett, as they claimed was the case during her 2017 hearings for a spot on the 7th Circuit. It’s a clever move for Republicans, who can cry religious bias should any Democratic senators try to investigate any possible connections between Barrett’s ardent faith and her views on, say, abortion and marriage equality. (The faith group with which she’s associated, People of Praise, opposes abortion and expels members for gay sex; Barrett also gave talks to anti-abortion groups in 2013, which she initially failed to disclose to the Senate ahead of her hearing.) The other, perhaps more significant part of her personal background that works quite nicely as both sword and shield: Barrett is a mother. And not just any mother, but a mother who works, returning at the end of the day to a house of seven children, two of whom were adopted from Haiti.

Nearly every Republican senator during the hearings mentioned Barrett’s large brood in an awe-inspired way. She is “remarkable,” the senators told her — a “superstar.” Barrett, for her part, has embraced the supermom narrative. She brought most of her large family to watch the hearings and made clear on the day of her nomination that while she’s a judge at work, she’s “better known back home as a room parent, carpool driver, and birthday party planner.”

Conservative pundits and columnists have crowed that the hysterical, naggy Democrats weren’t able to “Kavanaugh” a superwoman. The glorified, even fetishized ideal of conservative, religious white womanhood made Barrett an ideal candidate, even before she was memed for not taking any hearing notes, supposedly evidence of her brilliance.

The two Republican women on the committee went so far as to insinuate that Barrett’s Democratic critics were, in fact, being anti-feminist in daring to oppose her nomination. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa told Barrett that the Dems were “attacking you as a mom and a woman of faith” with accusations that are “demeaning to women … 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.”

Slate’s Christina Cauterucci captures the narrative’s “insidious sexism”:

Ernst’s implication, that being a mom with a job makes Barrett a friend to women, regardless of how her jurisprudence affects their lives, is exactly the kind of narrow reading of feminism anti-feminists would like to promote: one that encourages prolific motherhood for some while stigmatizing it for others; one that would force women into unwanted childbirth, then abandon them and their children once they’ve left the womb; one that disregards the unearned privileges and social forces that allow some women to thrive while keeping others in a state of precarious struggle; and one that points to the advancement of certain individual women as evidence that gender discrimination does not exist.

This is the conservative savvy of a pick like Barrett: “She is the perfect combination of brilliant jurist and a woman who brings the argument to the court that is potentially the contrary to the views of the sitting women justices,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political group, told the New York Times last month. Even though, by 2020, we should know better than to assume that a single representative of a demographic will always best represent that demographic, Democrats would have to tread carefully were they to so much as insinuate that Barrett, a woman, might not ensure the best futures for most (nonwhite, non-Christian, not straight or cis, not financially comfortable) women, a majority of whom want to keep abortion legal.

So too were Barrett defenders able to wield her motherhood status when it came to where she stands on racial justice. Earlier this week, when Sen. Cory Booker asked her if she condemns white supremacy — noting that the president who appointed her has failed to do so in a straightforward way — he was slammed on the conservative internet for what was apparently a deeply offensive question, given that, as the Blaze and many other conservative outlets pointed out, Barrett is the mother of two Black children. (She answered Booker in the affirmative.)

Though the grown children of transracial adoption will readily tell you that being the adoptive parents of kids of color doesn’t magically make white people not racist (and can even help mask their racism), it’s automatically assumed of white, partnered, religious mothers — in the way it isn’t for Black mothers, or single mothers, or poor mothers, many of whom tend to be vilified rather than lionized — that they can do little wrong.