This week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett were markedly different from those that preceded Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment in 2019. The tone was noticeably softer (understandably, since Barrett, unlike Kavanaugh, has not been credibly accused of sexual assault); Senator Dianne Feinstein even kicked off her questioning by asking Barrett about her family.
Politics aside, Barrett’s ability to work and parent seven children simultaneously is undoubtedly a sign of how far we have come, particularly in light of the fact that it’s been less than two decades since the first mother was named to the Supreme Court. Regardless of how you feel about Barrett’s policies, it’s encouraging to think that the pressure on working mothers to keep their family responsibilities obscured from view (often at great personal cost) is gradually lessening.
Far more relevant than the details of Barrett’s own family choices, though, are her views on which choices she feels should be available to other families. Barrett has ruled against arguments supporting the Affordable Care Act, the rollback of which would cost 30 million Americans their health insurance; how many of those Americans are mothers, ones whose lives will become incalculably more difficult without access to affordable health care?
Barrett has also expressed staunchly pro-life views in the past, presumably with the knowledge that the majority of people seeking abortions already have children. How many of them will be forced to leave the workforce, or take on second or third jobs to pay the bills, or give up dreams of, say, ascending to the Supreme Court, if they’re forced to bear children they’re not emotionally or financially prepared to have?
Barrett’s case also raises the question of which mothers are exalted for their commitment to family, and which ones are scorned; while the SCOTUS nominee’s role as a mother to seven children is touted by the right as a sterling example of “family values,” mothers of color, and Black mothers in particular, are more likely to face racist scrutiny for their family size and to have their parenting choices policed by the state.
The ultimate goal of the feminist movement is often summarized with the word “choice,” and not just in a reproductive-rights context. The majority of U.S. women agree that in an ideal world, everyone would have bodily autonomy and access to reproductive care; even beyond that, though, every mother would have the economic freedom to work outside the home or not, depending on the needs of her individual family.
Why, in 2020, is choice—not just of whether or not to parent, but how–still a luxury reserved for only the most fortunate of mothers? Or, more simply put: Why do we sanctify the choices of white, upper-middle-class mothers while repeatedly failing their Black, Latinx, Indigenous, low-income and otherwise marginalized counterparts, over and over again?