Jurisprudence

Stop Comparing Amy Coney Barrett to a Handmaid. She Would Be a Wife.

Diptych of Yvonne Strahovski looking stern as Serena Waterford and Amy Coney Barrett at her confirmation hearing
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Amy Coney Barrett. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by George Kraychyk/Hulu and Bonnie Cash/Pool/Getty Images.

In the weeks since Republicans announced their intent to ram through Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation, we have been swimming in ‘handmaid’ comparisons. Barrett was a member of People of Praise, an extremist Catholic group that preaches husbands should oversee their wives and households. Even while reporting on this, news organizations have bent over backward to clarify that while the group did call its advisers “hands” and “handmaids,” its use of the term predated Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and Hulu’s adaptation). The group was not the author’s direct inspiration. Still, plenty of internet commentators have circulated photos of Barrett in one of the red dresses she wore during her hearings, next to June, the lead handmaid played by Elisabeth Moss in Hulu’s series.

These suggestions, fueled by Barrett’s unjust views on issues including abortion and LGBTQ rights, seek to compare the judge’s regressive politics to the fictional world of Gilead. The parallelism is not unfounded, but they get one critical thing wrong. Comparing her to a handmaid lacks any intersectional analysis. Amy Coney Barrett wouldn’t be a handmaid. She would be a wife.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead centers on a hierarchical system of red-clad handmaids and blue-draped wives. The handmaids are stripped of rights and forced to bear children for wealthy infertile couples. Though the wives also face patriarchal rules forbidding them from activities like reading, they enjoy significantly more autonomy than handmaids. The wives don’t merely uphold the inhumane cisheterosexist regime; they were instrumental in its creation. Throughout Hulu’s adaptation, wife Serena, played by Yvonne Strahovski, is shown like a fictional Phyllis Schlafly, proselytizing regressive policies in flashbacks. And like The Handmaid’s Tale’s wives, Amy Coney Barrett is working to build a more unjust society for oppressed communities, despite being a woman herself.

Barrett’s confirmation would turn the clock back on human rights, but similarly to the wives in The Handmaid’s Tale, Barrett would not face the full consequences of her judicial decisions. Rich white women have upheld and continue to uphold patriarchal white supremacy and punitive capitalism at the direct expense of others. Barrett’s false feminist promise of the possibility to have it all—a large family and successful career—is not a reality for many working-class women, but rather “an example to young women across America of what they can do if they have enough money.” The impact of America’s policies on Black women, women of color, low-income women, indigenous women, immigrant women, and queer and trans folks already reflect conditions similar to those in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Though Barrett has skirted questions about how she would rule on abortion during Senate hearings, it is clear she seeks to erode abortion rights. Trump vowed to appoint so-called pro-life judges. Barrett’s past writings indicate she will be one. On the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett supported judicial opinions to require parental notification for abortions without exception and to mandate the cremation of fetal remains.

Many pregnant folks already face undue burdens when seeking abortion care. The Hyde Amendment prevents federal Medicaid funds from paying for abortions. This racist and classist policy disproportionately affects Black and Latinx patients, who are more likely to be enrolled in Medicaid. Rural patients also face barriers to care: 89 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic. Many pregnant people seeking abortions must travel across state lines to receive care, racking up travel bills and risking jobs when they have to take multiple days off. By further restricting access to care, as Barrett has said she would do, these communities would be disproportionally harmed, even if Roe v. Wade holds.

Barrett’s likely rulings on abortion aren’t the only decisions she would hand down without personal consequence. Barrett sparked controversy last week after using the term “sexual preference” in response to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s question about Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Her use of this outdated term that implies sexuality is a choice caused concern among LGBTQ rights organizations—a concern that is even more acute in light of the statement Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito penned earlier this month indicating their desire to overturn Obergefell. While Barrett later clarified that she hadn’t meant “any offense” by her use of the term, her apparent lack of knowledge of its implication does not bode well in a nation that already undervalues and harms queer folks, especially Black trans women.

That’s the thing about her jurisprudence—it is not aimed at making life better for systemically marginalized people. And this is exactly the problem the handmaid comparison ignores. Barrett is the oppressor, not the oppressed. She would make handmaids out of others.