This week, as senators held hearings to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a seat on the Supreme Court, her motherhood—as much as her rulings, opinions, or beliefs—has been wielded as both sword and shield.
Coney Barrett is a mother of seven children, and her status as a mother was praised by Republicans, who have waved it like a flag over the proceedings. She’s a mother, so you can trust her. She’s a mother, so she must be good. Never mind that motherhood should not be a factor in a person’s job interview. No, it should not be used against someone. It is also not a qualification.
On the first afternoon of hearings, when Democrats attempted to press Coney Barrett on how a conservative-led court could repeal the Affordable Care Act, thus stripping health insurance from millions of people (including several million mothers!), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) seemed offended on Coney Barrett’s behalf: “That’s outrageous. As a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care.” Grassley himself has voted several times to repeal the ACA.
Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) was angry that Democrats would even question Coney Barrett’s nomination. “They’re attacking you as a mom!” she said.
The reasoning seems to be: Coney Barrett is a mother, so she is above reproach. Or she’s a mother, so attacks on her as a person convert on contact to attacks on her as a mother. They’ve boiled her down to a single identity, and everything she does or will do flows from that.
But in touting the motherhood of Coney Barrett, Republicans haven’t just insulated Coney Barrett from Democrats’ questioning. They also remind the public that a woman’s worth is primarily a measure of her reproductive capabilities.
It’s a neat rhetorical trick—securing the oppression of all mothers through the elevation of a white, married, well-educated mother. It doesn’t matter whether mothers speak out against Coney Barrett. It doesn’t matter whether other women who are not mothers do. To anticipate how her actions will damage the lives of other people is to attack her—a mother. It’s exhausting. But it’s nothing new in America.
White motherhood has often been used to similar effect. White mothers fought against desegregation, using concern for their white children to perpetuate inequality. Phyllis Schlafly, who led a conservative crusade against women’s equality, used the pearl-clutching line “What about the mothers” to fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. She argued, in essence, that if women had more equality, they’d lose out on paternalistic male care. A point that she implied, but did not make central to her case, was that the women who have benefited for centuries from paternalistic male care tend to be wealthy, white women. And when Kellyanne Conway—again, a white mother—defended the Trump administration’s family separation policy, she absolved herself of personal guilt, telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that “as a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has a conscience…I will tell you that nobody likes this policy.”
The political theater of Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings is happening against the backdrop of a cascade of crises within the Trump administration, which so mismanaged the pandemic that women are being forced from their jobs in record numbers because the requirements of work and online school are breaking them. It’s happening while Republican governors, like Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, use the pandemic to limit access to abortion—but still refuse to pass a mask mandate. It’s happening in a country that does not have affordable childcare, nor paid parental leave. While Republicans chirp about Amy Coney Barrett’s motherhood, they serve in a chamber that has failed to meaningfully safeguard the lives of mothers on the most basic, practical level: On top of everything else, the United States has the worst maternal mortality rate among developed nations.
What would Amy Coney Barrett—a mother—propose we do about all this? According to her originalist judicial philosophy, the Supreme Court should endeavor to interpret that law as if it’s still 1787, when women could not vote and millions of Black Americans were still enslaved. She wants to preserve the past, but her present life is possible because of women braver than she is. Coney Barrett is able to be a mother of seven and a prospective Supreme Court justice because she has choices—choices that trailblazing feminists fought for, choices available to her through wealth and access and capital.
Coney Barrett’s motherhood has been fetishized during these hearings not because Senate Republicans care so much about mothers, but because finding a mother whose interests are aligned with their own is good for their brand: Here’s a woman who can be trusted with power. This kind of mother is the good kind of mother.
America has long lauded this certain kind of mother—white, successful, walks into church holding hands with her husband, has dinner on the table at 6 p.m., with a circle of children around her.
Most mothers in America do not look like this. Some are single mothers. Some are Black or brown or Asian. They are fat, they are queer. Some are white like her. Some are mothers to multiple children, as she is. But that’s not good enough. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a Catholic mother, with five children. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is often the target of GOP smears, is not above their critique because she is a mother of three.
The fixation on Coney Barrett’s motherhood aims to reinforce the idea that in America, motherhood is a credential for a certain kind of mother. For the “right” mother, it’s an advantage. The bad mothers are the rest of us. Senators Ernst and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) don’t have respect for mothers writ large; their praise is reserved for mothers who fit their patriarchal ideals. It certainly doesn’t apply to me, a single mother. And it certainly doesn’t apply to immigrant mothers on the border who’ve been separated from their children or who’ve been forced to have hysterectomies in ICE detention centers.
The theater of white motherhood is just that—an act. And it comes at the expense of other mothers.
Later in the hearings, after heaping on her admiration for Coney Barrett as a mother, Blackburn stated, “If they had their way, only certain kinds of women would be inside this hearing room.” It was a swipe, of course, calling attention to a perceived bias that Republicans believe Democrats have against conservative women.
But the lives of these “certain kinds of women,” like Coney Barrett, like Ernst, like Blackburn herself, were made possible because other women fought for their right to vote, their right to run for Senate, and their right to make the laws of the land.
Coney Barrett, Ernst, and Blackburn are not feminists, but they benefit from a world that feminists built. They owe their careers to women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They’ve walked through doors that trailblazing Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm opened. And they are doing their best to slam those doors shut behind them.
This content was originally published here.