Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court goes to the heart of the question of what feminism actually is. Is supporting the promotion of women inherently feminist? One of Ginsburg’s best-known quotes came from an interview in 2015 when she asserted, “People ask me sometimes, when—when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the (Supreme) Court? And my answer is when there are nine.”
President Donald Trump’s immediate public commitment to appoint a woman to replace Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, and his subsequent nomination of Barrett were intended, one presumes, to demonstrate that he too supports increasing female representation and that, therefore, women who consider themselves feminists can support Donald Trump. Trump himself directed a spotlight on how open his play for the support of White women is during a Pennsylvania rally on Tuesday, when he said: “Suburban women, will you please like me?”
In her remarks in the Rose Garden following Trump’s announcement of her nomination, Barrett noted with terse applause that “Justice Ginsburg began her career at a time when women were not welcome in the legal profession. But she not only broke glass ceilings, she smashed them. For that, she has won the admiration of women across the country, and indeed, all over the world.”
What feminism is — and isn’t
Feminism — in marked contrast with the legal vision mapped out by many of Barrett’s writings and public statements on issues like health care and sexual assault — is about promoting women’s equality across the social and political spectrum.
As Ginsburg’s veritable judicial opposite, Barrett’s praise suggests that people should admire Ginsburg for her success in becoming the second female supreme court justice, not for her record. But, for those who admired the “Notorious RBG” as a feminist icon, the two are inextricably intertwined, and many women’s rights activists have refused to look with favor on the woman likely to be confirmed as the Supreme Court’s fifth female justice. These women want to see more women fill the highest posts in law and politics, but they want women in those posts who will use their positions, not to set an example of what is achievable by the ambitious minority, but to further the interests of the majority of women who will never attain a seat at the highest tables.
Barrett is putting herself forward for confirmation as a jurist, not political office, but, with the Republicans in firm control (for the moment) of the Senate and the White House, her confirmation hearings are largely acknowledged as political theatre. In playing out their disagreements over Barrett’s nomination on Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats are making a particular appeal to those White women who were seen as a key component of Trump’s 2016 electoral coalition and who appear to be turning away from the president in 2020.
‘A legal titan who drives a minivan’
During the first two days of hearings, Republicans such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Joni Ernst applauded Barrett and held her up as a role model for her success in juggling a legal career and a large family, with Indiana Sen. Mike Braun referring to her as “a legal titan who drives a minivan.” Barrett, for her part, repeatedly made reference to her children and her maternal empathy in discussing her approach to writing judicial opinions.
Democrats, meanwhile, focused on the threat her confirmation could pose to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), underscoring the risks particular to women if the Supreme Court were to invalidate the ACA. Its provisions include making it illegal to charge women more for coverage than men or discriminate against pregnant women, and mandate that health insurance policies must include contraceptive coverage, excepting in cases where the employer has a conscientious objection to providing such a benefit.
‘In the name of RBG, we should not go backward’
Democratic legislators, beginning with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also highlighted concerns about Barrett’s stance on Roe v. Wade, which Trump has contradictorily suggested is likely to come up for revision by the new court, and insisted is “not on the ballot” in the coming election. Senator Mizuno Hirono pointedly raised the case of Lilly Ledbetter, who unsuccessfully sought remedy at the Supreme Court for years of gender-based pay discrimination while working at Goodyear Tire. Barrett’s mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia, sided with the majority in deeming her case beyond their jurisdiction. Ginsburg wrote the court’s dissent.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar summed up the feminist position: “To the women of America, we have come so far, and in the name of RBG, we should not go backward” by confirming Barrett. Vice-presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris strongly contrasted Barrett’s refusal to weigh in on Roe with Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings in 1993, during which Ginsburg declined to commit to a stance on the case while leaving absolutely no doubt about her commitment to women’s right to choose and its direct connection to social and economic equality for women.
What history says about women leaders who say ‘I am not a feminist’
In listening to the past two days’ hearings and reading the statements opposing Barrett’s nomination issued by feminist groups, I was reminded of the controversy over Margaret Thatcher’s election as Britain’s first female prime minister. The Iron Lady was a trailblazer and a role model for many women. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, she was roundly rejected by feminists and her premiership arguably pushed many women out of the Conservative Party.
When Thatcher became prime minister in May 1979, following her party’s landmark election victory, exit polling showed that nearly half of women had voted for the Iron Lady. Eight years later, when Thatcher won her third general election, she could still claim the allegiance of a plurality of female voters. But what was notable about the 1987 election was less Thatcher’s continued electoral dominance than the collapse of the UK’s historic “gender gap” in male and female voting.
In the United States, women have historically held a stronger preference for the Democratic party than their male counterparts. (Even in 2016, when Trump won amongst White women, he still polled substantially better with White men than White women.) In contrast, British women, prior to 1987, were reliably more pro-Conservative than British men. Yet, while Thatcher’s support among male voters held steady across her premiership, the gender gap disappeared because her support amongst women fell. Notably, the fall off was most dramatic amongst younger women.
The reason perhaps lies in Thatcher’s famous assertion in 1978 that, “I am not a feminist.” She rose to political prominence at the same time as the second-wave feminist movement, and her career owned much to the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, her policies as prime minister did not advance women’s social or political security –working-class women, in particular, were negatively affected by her welfare reforms. Faced with the alternatives of a woman hostile to women’s interests and a male-led opposition Labour Party which at least sought to work with women’s groups to advance a reformist agenda, many women’s rights activists opted for a different type of gender solidarity.
What this all means for women voters in 2020
Academic research suggests that female swing voters, if they identity as feminists, are likely to respond positively to a female candidate. While Trump cannot change his own gender, he can hope to win favor with female voters by nominating a woman to the court, just as Joe Biden arguably publicly declared his commitment to choose a female running mate in part to shore up support from women voters.
Yet, history shows that women do not judge female politicians — nor, presumably, female justices — by their gender alone, and there is little reason to believe that Barrett’s nomination will be received differently by women voters simply because she is a woman. If they like her politics and judicial philosophy, they will like her, and appreciate Trump’s decision to nominate her to the bench. If they don’t, they won’t.
Editor’s note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She writes on British politics and gender and is the author of “Thatcher and the Women’s Vote” and “Feminist Responses to Thatcher and Thatcherism.” The views expressed here are her own.