The Senate hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination began on Monday with an invocation of girl power. In his opening statement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, promised to fill the SCOTUS vacancy left by one champion of women’s rights with “another great woman.” He also praised Barrett for the nature of her motherhood. “She and her husband have seven children, two adopted, so nine seems to be a good number,” he said, a winking reference to the possibility of Democrats someday adding seats to the Supreme Court.
Graham’s opener may have rested on faulty mathematics—seven children, two of whom are adopted, equals seven children, not nine—but his emphasis on Barrett’s motherhood hewed to a common theme at Monday’s hearing. Nearly every Republican senator on the committee mentioned Barrett’s children; most suggested that her experience as a mother made her a better judicial nominee. And the two Republican women on the committee, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, used a contorted brand of right-wing feminism to frame their opening remarks. “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,” Blackburn said. Barrett’s nomination was presented both as a triumph of first-wave feminism—the suffragists got multiple shout-outs—and as evidence that Republicans, who have been steadily losing women voters over the past few decades, support women, too.
It is indisputable that parenting is difficult, especially for women, who are broadly tasked with a disproportionate share of the workload. Barrett has probably worked incredibly hard to get to where she is today, as have millions of other mothers who work outside the home, whether or not they’ve worked in the powerful institutions—Notre Dame, the federal judiciary—she has. At Monday’s hearing, Republicans commended her efforts. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas gave Barrett a grandiose proclamation about all young women out there who “marvel at the balance you’ve achieved in your personal and professional life.” Sen. Ted Cruz said it was extraordinary that Barrett had managed to achieve so much “while being a mom to seven kids,” as if the parental responsibilities in her family accrued only to her, and her ability to manage them simply a credit to her smarts and work ethic. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said his granddaughters now know that “just like Justice Barrett, with hard work and dedication, they can realize their American dream.”
Sen Mike Lee, who, like Tillis, tested positive for COVID-19 after Barrett’s super-spreader announcement party, suggested that Barrett was probably “a de facto mother” to her six younger siblings, making her a mother or pseudo-mother to 13 people total. Lee’s salivating fetishization of the exact number of children Barrett has raised—like that of Vice President Mike Pence, who, at the vice presidential debate last week, applauded that Barrett would be bringing a “sizable American family” to the court—reveals a profound disrespect for women as professional colleagues. To them, the value of any given woman in their workplace rises in proportion to the number of children she has reared.
The sexism deployed by Ernst and Blackburn was more insidious. Both women attempted to paint legitimate criticisms of Barrett’s judicial philosophy—which holds little regard for stare decisis, putting Roe v. Wade and generations of Supreme Court precedent at risk—and the anti-democratic maneuverings of Republicans to seat her as some kind of anti-conservative misogyny. “Women all over the world…are all too often perceived and judged based on who someone else needs or wants us to be, not on who we actually are,” Ernst said to Barrett. “As a fellow woman, as a fellow mom, as a fellow Midwesterner, I see you for who you are.” She told the nominee that Democrats are “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.”
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.
Ernst and Blackburn both presented a revisionist history of American discrimination, in which Christian women who are proud mothers and believe in a traditional family structure are the ones who’ve had it rough. Blackburn waxed poetic about the articles and opinions Barrett must have written “with a child in your arms, on your hip, or somewhere in tow, maybe waiting for a ballgame to begin,” and insinuated that Democrats objected to her brand of womanhood, not her judicial arguments or the ideology of the president who is so certain she shares his worldview, he’s nominated her for two jobs in three years. “If they had their way, only certain kinds of women would be allowed into this hearing room,” Blackburn said.
Meanwhile, Ernst attempted to make herself and Barrett out to be smashers of the glass ceilings Ernst’s own party is working so hard to preserve. “The great freedom of being an American woman is that we can decide how to build our lives. Whom to marry, what kind of person we are, and where we want to go,” she said. “I served in the army, something not exactly popular at various points in America’s history. We don’t have to fit the narrow definition of womanhood. We create our own path.” She ended her speech on a note of victory: “This, folks, is what a mom can do.”
Yes—we’ve already established that? Barrett is far from the only mother to succeed against the odds in the field of law, and she wouldn’t be the first on the Supreme Court. If conservative women can’t see role models in Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor or Sen. Amy Klobuchar, that’s their own problem. (It’s worth noting that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that sexist conservative voters won’t support women in Republican primaries.)
Blackburn and Ernst are trying to discredit feminism as a hollow, ideology-neutral numbers game, in which any woman doing anything that fulfills her and her alone is a win for all women. They’re also trying to rewrite the history of their political party, as if it isn’t the main American institution attempting to restrict women’s opportunities by withholding funding for child care and paid parental leave, denouncing the goal of gender equality as contrary to biological fact, elevating proud sexual abusers to positions of power, and making abortion and birth control more difficult to access. The gist of the GOP’s admiration for the twin prongs of Barrett’s career and her parental duties boils down to this: When a mother manages to excel in her career in spite of the social, political, and economic barriers that stand in her way, this reflects well on the mother, but not poorly on the barriers. She deserves praise for muddling through, but she does not deserve public policy that would help her do so.
There’s another reason why Republicans keep bringing up Barrett’s children and praising her as a woman who has it all. In a crude way, her lived example supports their argument that women’s choices, not the systemic restriction of those choices, is the only thing holding women back. It’s this belief that allows anti-choice activists to call themselves feminists and argue that abortion restrictions are not sexist—that assaults on a woman’s right to govern her own medical care, control what happens to her body, and choose when and whether to have children do not hold a woman back from achieving everything she wants in life. Republicans want you to know that it’s hard to have a ton of children while pursuing an ambitious career, and that Barrett is remarkable for having done so. But also, if Amy Coney Barrett can do it, so can you.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.