On Monday, the rushed confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court began, despite a novel coronavirus outbreak at the White House that resulted in at least two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee testing positive. After opening statements from Republican and Democratic committee members, Barrett made her case for joining the highest court in the land, relying heavily on her identity as a mother.
“As the president noted when he announced my nomination, I would be the first mother of school-age children to serve on the court,” Barrett said. She shared stories about all seven of her children and claimed she always pushed herself to consider “if one of my children was the party I was ruling against” when handing down judicial decisions.
Barrett, along with a host of Republican leaders, pointed to her role as a mom as both a qualification and a marker of goodness. But motherhood is not inherently virtuous, no matter the relentless efforts of Republicans who want to present it that way. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a father to nine children, yet his identity as a father of a large family wasn’t weaponized in the way Barrett’s identity as a mother has been and will continue to be. And Barrett seems more than happy to take up this motherly mantle if it means she eventually becomes a Supreme Court justice. (As author Rebecca Traister wrote in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger”: “White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers.” In Barrett, the GOP has found not a foot soldier, but a general.)
Throughout Monday’s hearing, Republicans hammered home the talking point that Barrett’s decision to have and care for seven children somehow automatically qualifies her to become a Supreme Court justice. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who appeared in person at the confirmation hearing after testing positive for the coronavirus just under two weeks ago, began his opening remarks by saying he has something in common with Barrett: They’re both members of large families. As the oldest of seven children, Lee pontificated, Barrett was probably the “de facto mother” of her six siblings before she had seven children of her own. That responsibility undoubtedly “helped you throughout life, establishing leadership roles in your career,” Lee said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), during his opening remarks, said there’s a question that crops up in his discussions with constituents: “They want to know how you do it.” He wondered aloud how Barrett and her husband maintain full-time professional careers while simultaneously caring for their seven children. Cornyn then said that many young women, including his own daughters, “marvel at the balance” that Barrett achieved between her personal and professional life. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) inexplicably asked Barrett for parenting “tips” after commending her children for sitting calmly during the hearing. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) ended her opening remarks — which, ironically enough, involved a tribute to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and included the claim that “the great freedom of being an American woman is that we can decide how to build our lives” — by declaring that being a justice is “what a mom can do.”
And long before the rushed confirmation hearing even began, Vice President Pence said on the vice-presidential debate stage that Barrett is “a brilliant woman, and she will bring a lifetime of experience and a sizable American family to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The decision to become a mom — to one child, to seven children, to swaths of children if she felt so inclined — has little to no bearing on Barrett’s qualifications. Her personal reproductive and parenting choices are just that: personal. They give barely any insight on how she will rule on, say, Roe v. Wade. After all, the majority of people who have abortions are already moms, according to 2008 data from the Guttmacher Institute, and Catholics like Barrett are just as likely to have abortions as anyone else.
Her history as a judge and a law professor, however, do give the American people insight into how this judge will rule on a number of issues, Roe v. Wade included. Which is why both Barrett and her GOP cohorts want to shift focus from her judicial and professional past and focus on the personal reproductive outcomes she has experienced and the family she has cultivated as a woman and mom. In paperwork submitted to the Senate, Barrett initially failed to disclose two 2013 talks she gave as a law professor at the University of Notre Dame at events hosted by antiabortion student groups. She also signed an antiabortion letter in 2006 as part of an ad that ran in a local Indiana newspaper, which supported the reversal of Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed her and other signatories’ commitment to “the right to life from fertilization to a natural death.” Barrett has criticized the Supreme Court decision preserving the Affordable Care Act, has questioned whether federal anti-discrimination law should include protections for transgender people, and believes marriage equality should be left up to individual state governments.
Republicans have a long history of parading around White motherhood as the epitome of responsibility and a benchmark of perceived morality. And in doing so, they continue a shell game that hides their insidious antiabortion, anti-woman agenda under a guise of family values.
But make no mistake: There is nothing virtuous or honorable about using White motherhood to confirm a Supreme Court justice who clearly wants to dictate what motherhood looks like for everyone else.