On Wednesday afternoon, conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett offered a brief moment of levity during a line of questioning from Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. “I did have a glass of wine,” Barrett confirmed with a smile. “I needed that last night.”
The line was as much a wink to the Wine Moms of America as it was to the right-wing narrative surrounding the toil of her hearings: That Barrett is receiving vicious treatment by petulant Democrats, who are determined to smear her character. This was a stark shift in strategy from that of Republican senators, who spent most of Tuesday’s hearings arguing that the Democrats were vicious anti-Catholic bigots with a virulent disdain for Barrett’s motherhood. Democrats didn’t take the bait, so by Wednesday, the Republican rendering of those Democrats had morphed into one of ardent sexists whose grilling of Barrett is cruel and anti-feminist.
Though Barrett has remained restrained during the hearings, neatly circling any line of questioning that might force her into a stance, she did her best to amplify the supposed difficulty of the hearing. Barrett told Sen. Thom Tillis that she’s enduring this nomination process to “protect freedom” and the “rule of law” for her kin, but still, there has been a toll. Barrett said that her 10-year-old son, Liam, was so upset during the questioning portion of the hearing the day before that he had to leave.
Even Barrett’s children understand the reprehensible treatment their mother is receiving, she implied.
Barrett has used her children as empathy shields more than once during the confirmation hearing, holding up her adopted Black son and daughter when the issue of race emerged (though she often declined to engage in the subject forthright, beyond meekly decrying “racism”). And now, Senate Republicans are happy to paint Barrett as inherently worthy of empathy by the very virtue of being a conservative woman, a group they are keen to paint as disenfranchised.
“The Democrats seem to claim that you wouldn’t be an adequate replacement for Justice Ginsburg because you do not march in lockstep with her judicial philosophy,” Republican Senator Joni Ernst said Wednesday. “The way I see it, you’re both trailblazers.” Ernst went on to celebrate “diversity of thought,” which she said is what these women “trailblazers” of yore were striving for.
“What I hear so often from the left... is that because we don’t hold the same views that those on the left do, we shouldn’t be serving in the roles we’re in,” Ernst said. “And that’s what the left is projecting on you.”
Ernst echoed Senator Lindsey Graham, who had laid out the two groups in America that he believes are having a uniquely rough time at the moment: conservatives of color and conservative women. Graham made it clear that he is dismayed by those who fail to regard Barrett as a champion for women.
“There’s an effort by some in the liberal world to marginalize [your] contribution because you come out on a different side of an issue, particularly abortion,” Graham said. “So this hearing, to me, is an opportunity to not punch through a glass ceiling, but a reinforced concrete barrier around conservative women. You’re going to shatter that barrier.”
Republicans are demanding that Barrett be appointed to her lifetime seat on the Supreme Court not just seamlessly but delicately, without interrogating the very ideology that helped get her here in the first place. It’s not enough that she’ll wield enormous power to carry out the regressive agenda of the conservatives that put her there, but she must be celebrated for her so-called “diversity” —of gender, of thought—as well.
Republican senators didn’t have to look hard to land on the narrative of the aggrieved conservative woman, which has long acted as a counterpoint to resistance movements. It’s taken many shapes in the last several decades, from the traditionalism espoused by Phyllis Schlafly, to the plight of former Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, whose incompetence was rationalized as the product of sexist framing. Selling conservative women as pioneers in supposedly exclusive progressive spaces has long been a blunt but useful tool for entrenching patriarchal and prejudicial norms: that as long as they are espoused by a woman, they must be empowering. Consumer feminism of the last decade has only made these grievances easier to amplify, as feminism has been repackaged for the masses as anything and everything a woman does so long as it sparks happiness or fulfillment for her.
If it fulfills Barrett to advocate for an anti-abortion agenda, well, that’s girl power, baby. And how dare anyone—Senate Democrats, reproductive rights groups, concerned marginalized Americans—deny her?
The right, and especially right-wing women, may not embrace feminism, but they’ve embraced the more vapid interpretations that have emerged from its mainstreaming. And they’re happily applying it to this nomination process, rendering valid critiques of Barrett’s ideology and the harm it poses as the antithesis of women’s empowerment. Graham even applied the rhetoric of second-wave feminists, “glass ceiling,” to Barrett’s career advancement as a woman with undeniably anti-woman political philosophy.
Perhaps this would all make more sense if conservative women like Barrett were as powerless as the right likes to make it seem. Sure, they don’t receive many accolades in pop culture, and their representation in Congress is dwindling (due, of course, to a lack of support from their own party, not any sort of Democratic propaganda scheme.) Republicans want Americans to believe that Barrett, and women like her, are victims of a liberal establishment that refuses to hail them as the heroes they are. But these are the same women who helped bring President Trump into power, and their ideology has the backing of rich and powerful interest groups that stand to profit from such a palatable ambassador.
Make no mistake. Barrett is not a victim of the system. She’s another beneficiary.