Progressive feminists claim that their movement empowers all women. And yet, at the same time, they are outraged by the suggestion that Amy Coney Barrett represents women – and conservative feminism.
On September 26, President Trump nominated Judge Barrett to the Supreme Court. The former Scalia clerk has distinguished herself by pursuing what she calls a “full life”: a career as a law professor and federal judge as well as a family with seven children. And yet, in response to the proposal of Judge Barrett as a feminist symbol, feminist media are unleashing a backlash on the accomplished nominee.
Feminists shouldn’t be so quick to reject Judge Barrett – or the idea of conservative feminism.
Hours after Judge Barrett’s nomination, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posed the question, “can there be a conservative feminism that’s distinctive, coherent and influential” in the mainstream?
If such a thing exists, conservative feminism “takes for granted that much of what Ginsburg fought for was necessary and just,” he wrote. At the same time, it “agrees that the accomplishments of Barrett’s career … could have been denied to her in 1950, and it hails that change as good.”
And yet, a conservative feminism would admit modern feminism’s failures.
It “also argues that feminism’s victories were somewhat unbalanced, that they were kinder to professional ambition than to other human aspirations, and that the society they forged has lost its equilibrium not just in work-life balance but also in other areas,” he added, including, sex, romance, marriage and child rearing.
Douthat hits on why so many conservative women refuse the feminist label as it stands: Because, while they support equal natural rights and equal opportunity for women, they also acknowledge sex differences.
In other words, our society and culture must refuse the position that a woman must become – and be treated like – a man to be equal. Instead, an authentic feminism embraces women as they are and values their unique contributions. This includes their amazing ability to grow and bear children.
Modern progressive feminists suppress this by heralding abortion as the great equalizer. Women need abortion, they say, for a variety of reasons: finances, education or career, a lack of childcare and good schools, an unsupportive partner.
But this feminism treats the male body as the prototype. Instead, a conservative feminist might address the root causes. How can we empower women to keep their babies? How can we encourage sustainable childcare and schools? How can we challenge pregnancy discrimination and offer flexible work options? How can we prepare women and men to be good mothers and fathers, as a team?
These are questions Judge Barrett’s life story inspires because, together with her husband, she successfully pursued a career and family.
And yet, Douthat’s column was met with a feminist outcry. They didn’t like Judge Barrett, they said, and they really didn’t like her position on abortion.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti insisted, “There’s no such thing as conservative feminism.” This isn’t a new argument for Valenti. In 2018, she accused conservatives of “appropriating feminist rhetoric” and, in 2014, she insisted that pro-life women can’t be feminists.
Valenti wasn’t alone in her reaction.
“Hot tip: feminism isn’t a girlpower sorority dedicated to being nice to other laydeez,” feminist writer Jaclyn Friedman tweeted. “It’s a liberatory political movement. Women who are against other women’s freedom are enemies of feminism.”
B**ch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler tweeted out a “short list of things that are not synonyms for ‘feminism,’” including, “Legislating away other women’s bodily autonomy.”
Women’s media outlets agreed.
“Feminism at its core is about dismantling long-standing patriarchal power structures and protecting women’s freedom in the pursuit of gender equality,” writer Natalie Gontcharova declared for Refinery29.
Like Valenti, the first issue she pointed to as a requirement was abortion.
Judge Barrett “has a firmly anti-choice judicial abortion record, and has referred to abortion as ‘always immoral,’ indicating she does not seem to believe in women’s freedom to make their own choices about their bodies,” Gontcharova reasoned.
Other media chimed in, including Jezebel, which published a “A Nuanced Response to Ross Douthat's Take on Amy Coney Barrett's 'Conservative Feminism.'” That response consisted of writer Harron Walker typing, “hahaha ha haa no are you f**king stupidksldl;;;hahaaaaahahaha hah ah aha.”
Such responses, by the way, are another reason why conservative women are hesitant about adopting the “feminism” label. But, depending on its definition, why shouldn’t conservatives embrace their own form of feminism? Who gets to define it?
For Politico, Erika Bachioch, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow and a senior fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute, stressed that Barrett “embodies a new kind of feminism.”
“It insists not just on the equal rights of men and women, but also on their common responsibilities,” she wrote. “In this new feminism, sexual equality is found not in imitating men’s capacity to walk away from an unexpected pregnancy through abortion, but rather in asking men to meet women at a high standard of mutual responsibility, reciprocity and care.”
That’s because, as Judge Barrett has stressed, she and her husband are a team. This still allows for acknowledging that no two women are alike.
“I think each woman is called to a unique path,” she urged at Hillsdale College last year. “I don’t think there’s one cookie-cutter way that women should proceed.”
In other words, women should live out their lives the way they choose: authentic feminism.
And so, instead of tearing apart women who choose differently, modern progressive feminists should recognize what they have in common with conservative women: Both want equal opportunities for women. Both want to support women who choose to keep their babies. Both want the availability of parental leave, flexible work options, and good childcare. Both challenge pregnancy discrimination and sexual abuse. Both want to empower women.
Yes, they disagree on “how.” But recognizing the end goal might be a start.