After nearly a week of Senate hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee for the US Supreme Court, we've gotten several viral moments from the experience, but nothing near the outrage that characterised the Brett Kavanaugh hearings several years ago. Yes, some people were taken aback when Barrett held up a blank notepad after being asked what notes she was using to answer questions. And, true, many were incensed when she could not list all five of the First Amendment freedoms (something asked on the citizenship test, and which people can be denied citizenship for not knowing). And there was a lot of consternation when Barrett refused to answer a question about whether presidents should commit to a peaceful transfer of power. But, mostly, pointed criticism of Barrett has been muted — which is exactly what Trump and Republicans assumed would happen, and why they nominated a candidate who could hide behind the shield of white motherhood.
The harshest critiques of Barrett have been levelled at her by left-leaning Democrats, and have centred around her lack of knowledge regarding the basics of the Constitution and how the legal system works, but they've avoided going after Barrett personally, even though there is a direct connection between her personal religious beliefs and her potential rulings. In part, this avoidance has been a response to the fact that Republicans preemptively created a narrative in which they said it would be bigoted if Democrats attacked Barrett’s motherhood or her Christianity, even though she has said the latter directly informs her views on things like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
This narrative created by the GOP was not done on the spur of the moment, and, in fact, its availability as a framing device is a big part of why Republicans saw Amy Coney Barrett as the perfect pick for the Supreme Court. They were relying on the fact that, as a society, we have been trained not to criticise people like Barrett: white women, mothers, Christians.
Her white womanhood allows her to be seen as innocent, good-intentioned, and "pure" — despite the fact that she has shown she favours stripping rights away from countless people in this country. Her status as a mother is an indication that she cares about family and children — despite the fact that she doesn't care if other people will be able to plan their families with the same freedom she had while planning hers. Her Christianity is used to signal that she is compassionate and a person of faith — despite the fact that religion has been historically used to justify colonisation and slavery and other horrific abuses. In this way, her identity as a white Christian mother is a shield — but it is also a weapon.
“White women are positioned as the virtue of society because they hold that position as the mother, as the keepers of virtuosity, all these ideologies that we associate with white motherhood and white women in particular, their certain role in society gives them power,” Dr Apryl Williams, an assistant professor in communications and media at the University of Michigan and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, told TIME.
In this way, Barrett is not unlike Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a comparison that has been frequently made on social media — and not just because Barrett's sect of Catholicism may have served as inspiration for the book. Barrett has said she supports constitutional originalism, saying “constitutional text means what it did at the time it was ratified and... this original public meaning is authoritative.” This is, of course, an interesting statement to make considering that adherence to the original version of the Constitution would mean, as a woman, she wouldn't be able to vote or sit on a jury — let alone on the Supreme Court.
Similarly, Serena Joy made her career writing texts that argued women shouldn’t be able to have their own careers, texts which eventually “relegat[ed her] to the role of decorative, insignificant housewife at the very moment she proved herself capable of running the world," Sady Doyle wrote in 2017 for Elle. Serena Joy, Doyle says, is an example of oppressive leaders getting "smart enough to sell us poison in an on-trend, very blonde package.” So, it seems, is Amy Coney Barrett.
And while it's easy to refuse to drink from a bottle clearly stamped with a skull-and-crossbones, it's a lot harder to do that when it's presented without that label. The GOP knows this, and is aware that the optics will be terrible if a Democrat attacks Barrett. It a man does it, he will be painted as aggressive and a misogynist. And if a woman — particularly a Black woman or women of colour — forcefully interrogates Barrett’s oppressive positions, she stands to get dismissed as “angry.” Republicans are counting on Barrett’s whiteness, her womanhood, and her motherhood, to insulate her from the degree of criticism she deserves, and which any other nominee to a lifetime position would receive.
This weaponised white womanhood is an important part of the Republicans' larger strategy. They can call themselves "feminists" for putting more women from their party in leadership roles, but those women are almost exclusively white and nearly always want to quash the freedom of those who are not. Ivanka Trump is a good example of the emptiness of “Girl Boss Feminism,” as are Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks and Kayleigh McEnany — all of whom are willing to lie while smiling to defend an administration that veers ever more closely into fascism.
Barrett is a culmination of those women, with the added protection of motherhood and religion, as if any of those things have prevented her from making decisions like blocking the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from preventing racially motivated employee-transfers in Chicago, or criticising and pushing back against the Affordable Care Act.
The GOP is counting on societal constructs that tell us that white women are essentially harmless to counteract the criticism a man might withstand in a similar position, which is why Barrett is the GOP's ultimate manoeuvre to outplay Democrats, a Trojan Horse of right-wing principles wrapped up in an unassuming package. Tempted, then, as many people might be to marvel at the exterior aspects of Barrett that we've been trained to admire — her devotion to faith and family and femininity — it's essential to remember that all of that masks an army of arch-conservative values, which she's more than willing to deploy to take away the freedoms of anyone who doesn't fit into her ideal worldview.