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The Elite Sisterhood of Amy Coney Barrett

Her nomination to the Supreme Court isn’t just about overturning Roe. It’s about redefining womanhood.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sometimes the reason “women’s rights” feel so tenuous is because the question “which women?” is as central as it is overlooked. The threat Amy Coney Barrett would pose to women as a Supreme Court justice far exceeds abortion. That she was nominated by President Trump to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a kind of fuck-you to those who saw Ginsburg as legal abortion’s last defense, isn’t helping clarify the potential damage Barrett could do. Any opposition to Barrett is about her faith, the kind of woman she is, her defenders say.

Let’s talk about a woman like her, then, and what she believes. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein wrote in The New York Times on Sunday, while much of the anxious response to Barrett’s nomination has focused on “whether as a believer in originalism and a practicing Catholic she would be likely to vote to reverse Roe v. Wade … [a]t least as consequential might be her position on the Social Security Administration.” On the court, Barrett could join legal attacks on the social safety net, on labor rights, on the environment. If appointed on Trump’s timeline, she would arrive in time to hear his administration’s arguments against the Affordable Care Act.

This isn’t to say abortion is less important than any of these concerns, or, more disturbingly, somehow a distraction to the Supreme Court’s business. Rather, all of these attacks should be more broadly understood as the court rewriting the legal underpinnings of women’s rights, in service of remaking what a woman is: when and how or if she can parent, where and for how much she can work, what or what little autonomy she can have. And this fight over womanhood is not being carried out by a “handmaiden” of the Catholic patriarchy but by a woman who is considerably protected by her own power.

Barrett has been a member of the conservative legal group that has lately functioned as Trump’s judge factory, the Federalist Society. At Notre Dame Law School, “she was groomed” for this appointment, a former colleague there told Politico. There, she found a group of like-minded law school faculty, which she later joined, who used arguments about “judicial restraint” to advance a broader plan to remake the court. Upending Roe was just one part of that strategy. Barrett’s decisions before this nomination speak to that broader agenda of using “originalism” to undercut the decisions of more liberal courts.

How far Barrett will take such appeals to so-called traditional values to undermine women’s rights is at the heart of concerns about her membership in a group associated with the Catholic charismatic movement, called People of Praise. Questions about Barrett’s role in the group have centered on its views of women and LGBTQ people, like its opposition to abortion and any sex outside of marriage. But women who were once members say it also involved control of their reproductive choices and sexuality.

One former member told Democracy Now about reproductive coercion she experienced. Barred from using contraceptives, she said, she was “supposed to have all the children God intended for me, no matter what my health was. I had had eight children and three miscarriages and D&C [dilation and curettage, a procedure to remove tissue from the uterus], often when my health was failing.” Another former member said she was exiled from the group after she told some women in the group that she was attracted to women and they reported her to leadership. The woman told The South Bend Tribune she would “absolutely” be concerned if Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court. “Much of it goes back to the concept of obedience, authority and headship.… When you’re a married woman, your head is your husband but it doesn’t go the other way around. A man can never have a female head.”

Barrett’s membership in such a group, one that seeks control over women, has not stopped some of her defenders from holding her aloft as the symbol of a kind of powerful woman. Ross Douthat at The New York Times defined Barrett as possessing a “combination of elite accomplishment with a faith and a family life,” evidence that could be something he called “a conservative feminism that’s distinctive, coherent, and influential.” That is, there is a feminism that can be made small enough for Amy Coney Barrett, and for women like her. With the allegations made by former People of Praise in mind, it’s hard to imagine where they would fit in such a feminism, one that is often advocated by those who may themselves not feel the urgency of their demands because they are not so in need of achieving them for themselves.

Supreme Court cases shape the lives of its justices, in the sense that they live in this country and under its laws. But the court’s most consequential decisions concern the lives of people who will never have as much power: people without health insurance, people organizing at their workplaces, people facing deportation, people on death row. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew this, certainly as it concerned who would be most denied reproductive rights. As she said in a 2015 interview, “We will never see a day when women of means are not able to get a safe abortion in this country.” She knew this was already true, as she also said in 2015: “Poor women don’t have choice.”

What choices Amy Coney Barrett has, and has exercised, pale in comparison to what power and control she has over women’s lives. Being a woman, it should not need to be said, means little in the face of that power. Even Justice Ginsburg did not fully account for a woman like Barrett’s possible ascension to the nation’s highest court. “People ask me sometimes,” Ginsburg offered in a 2015 NewsHour interview, “When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is, When there are nine.”