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Is Amy Coney Barrett a Feminist or Handmaid?

Vivia Chen

October 2, 2020

Amy_Coney_BarrettNow we know what Justice Antonin Scalia would look like if he were to come back to earth in drag.

He’d look fetching, yet demure. He’d wear a flattering, form-fitting (but not too tight) dress and high-heel pumps. He’d smile and exude humility. And instead of showing off his legal brilliance and wit, he’

d spotlight his warm and fuzzy side—being dad to nine kids and husband to Maureen.

I know that doesn’t sound like Scalia, but his protégé Amy Coney Barrett, the presumptive replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, is channeling her inner Nino. During her speech at the Rose Garden when she was introduced as the nominee for the high court, she said, “his judicial philosophy is mine“—which reminded me of Catherine Earnshaw’s “I am Heathcliff!” moment in “Wuthering Heights.” 

But before I go further, may I say this has been a brutal time for old-fashioned feminists like me? First, RBG died, and now another voice from the heyday of the women’s movement just went silent: Helen Reddy, who sang “I Am Woman” has passed.

Well, blast that feminist anthem (“I am woman/Hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore”) as loud as you want, but I’m afraid it’s awfully dated. Conservative women are now having a moment—but whether you want to call it a “feminist” moment is up for grabs.

The avatar of this new women’s movement is, of course, Barrett. While women were debating—and continue to debate—whether we can really have it all, Barrett was doing it all, but on a much grander scale. Not only does she have a high-power career, but she’s mom to seven kids—count them, seven! What’s more, one of her kids has Down syndrome and two were adopted from Haiti—which makes her family a lot more diverse than many law firms. (Query: Was it awkward for the family that Trump famously called Haiti a “shithole” country?)

By all accounts, Barrett is crazy smart, but what she also conveyed at that Rose Garden ceremony is that she’s a regular mom, like the rest of us: “While I am a judge, I’m better known back home as a room parent, carpool driver and birthday party planner. When schools went remote last spring, I tried on another hat: Jesse and I became co-principals of the Barrett e-learning academy.”

I don’t know how many women can sustain her model, but Barrett has certainly upped the ante. If she can be a tenured law professor, then a federal judge and now a likely Justice on the Supreme Court with seven kids in tow, what’s our excuse for not performing at a fraction of that level with just one or two kids? Are we just whiny wimps?

Indeed, some conservative women are rubbing our noses in it. “She is a walking example of how young children and demanding work can coexist—I dare suggest even happily,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Kate Bachelder Odell. She adds, “Democrats should think long and hard about whether it would be good politics to berate a working mom on television.” 

All of a sudden, conservative women are also embracing the “feminist” moniker—long disdained by family-value types—and praising RBG to further an anti-choice agenda. 

Erika Bachiochi, a pro-life lawyer and mother of seven herself, writes in Slate

“Barrett embodies a new kind of feminism, a feminism that builds upon the praiseworthy antidiscrimination work of Ginsburg but then goes further. It insists not just on the equal rights of men and women, but also on their common responsibilities, particularly in the realm of family life.” 

On the surface, Bachiochi’s essay is about gender equality and the need for workplaces to be more responsive to parents, but the underlying message is anti-choice: “When we belittle the moral status of the unborn child, treating the nascent human being in a near half-century of Supreme Court case law as ‘potential life’ … we ought not be surprised when our workplaces and other cultural institutions treat dependent human beings that way too.”  

Outlawing abortion will result in stronger families, greater gender equality, work/life balance and a sunnier world? Whatever.

While the right is hailing Barrett as a shiny example of a new feminism (and counting on her to decimate Roe v. Wade), the left is reducing her to caricature (and counting on her to decimate Roe v. Wade). But I think it’d be a big mistake to brush Barrett off as some sort of Stepford wife, tool of the patriarchy or character from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” 

Yes, she does belong to People of Praise, a religious group that preaches male dominance at home, but that doesn’t seem to define her life. Her marriage is not some retro 1950s style arrangement. She seems to have a genuinely supportive husband who, as she noted in her speech, does more than his fair share. (“For 21 years, Jesse has asked me, ‘what can I do for you today?’”) Frankly, I know a lot of liberal husbands who do squat around the house.

All this is to say that I think Barrett is more complicated and, arguably, much more dangerous. Make no mistake: for all her affability—indeed, she comes off as someone I could have drinks with—her mission is to demolish or hack away at what’s considered sacrosanct to modern women (reproductive choice and gender rights) and progressives (health care, gun control, discrimination laws). Those who’ve examined her rulings and writings expect her to be a very conservative justice, perhaps more so than Scalia. New York Times’ Adam Liptak writes ominously: “While Justice Scalia’s methods occasionally drove him to liberal results, notably in cases on flag burning and the role of juries in criminal cases, Judge Barrett could be a different sort of justice.”

At the Rose Garden ceremony, Barrett paid her respects to RBG, acknowledging how that feminist icon helped pave her own path to the Supreme Court. Barrett called RBG a “woman of enormous talent and consequence.” 

It was an appropriate, gracious tribute—but one laced with irony and, for me, ineffable sorrow.

 
 

vchen@alm.com

Twitter:@lawcareerist

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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