supreme court

Amy Coney Barrett and the Triumph of Phyllis Schlafly

Photo: Left: Julian Velasco/University of Notre Dame Law School Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Right: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Consider her out of context, and Amy Coney Barrett looks like a personal and professional success. A wife, a mother of seven, and now maybe a Supreme Court justice, Donald Trump’s new nominee seemingly has it all. Barrett, Trump said while announcing the nomination on Saturday, is a “towering intellect,” an accomplished woman and loving mother who possesses “one of our nation’s most brilliant and gifted legal minds.”

But Barrett is a Trump nominee, so the context is rather damning. Trump’s fleeting interest in female empowerment has always been undermined by his own sexism, and by the policies that he and his party prefer. The Barrett nomination reinforces rather than challenges the rule. As a potential successor to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the conservative Catholic judge serves two primary functions. She’ll excite the Christian right ahead of a presidential election, and she outrages the libs. The reasoning isn’t all that sophisticated: Upset by Barrett’s nomination? You’re the real sexist.

It’s an old trick. Women helped invent it. Barrett is the beneficiary of decades of right-wing activism, much of it carried out by women who not only rejected feminism but sought actively to bring it down low. In her religious conviction and her status as an accomplished but anti-feminist woman, the judge recalls Phyllis Schlafly, who died four years ago this month. Barrett was still a toddler when Schlafly and her militant housewives vanquished the Equal Rights Amendment. But to the left, Barrett is a familiar specter: a traitor to her sex.

We are all living in Schlafly country now. Barrett’s nomination is only the latest evidence. The border separating mainstream conservative politics from the fringe was never all that robust, but in 2020, it is invisible. Schlafly’s far-right, anti-feminist ideology has taken over the Republican Party. It doesn’t yet have the same stranglehold on public opinion. Most Americans think abortion ought to remain legal, and three-quarters even support Schlafly’s old nemesis, the ERA. But the election of Trump is proof that an ideology doesn’t have to be popular to win.

Liberals haven’t always grasped that lesson. That unfortunate reality was dramatized in Mrs. America, FX’s recent series about Schlafly’s rise to relevance. Faced with a stack of Schlafly’s now-infamous blue newsletters, Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug quips, “We don’t need to worry about stuff like this on the fringe.” Before too long, Abzug is out of Congress — and out of favor with her own Democratic Party. Schlafly’s future also looks uncertain, as her victories run up against the limitations of her movement. Her anointed candidate, Ronald Reagan, is president; the ERA is dead, or at least comatose. The Republican Party formally opposes abortion and the nascent Christian right looks to her for guidance.

Schlafly never quite made it out of the kitchen, either. She died on the outskirts of power, and never held office. Her organization, Eagle Forum, is dwarfed by Christian right groups with more money and better connections. But we’re still living with her ideas. Schlafly endorsed Trump just before her death, noting in a co-written book that he “had gone to great lengths to court national leaders in the social-conservative movement and has convinced many of the most prominent ones that he genuinely supports their policy positions.” Trump’s appeal hinged largely on the promise of a conservative Supreme Court, which could overturn Roe v. Wade or undermine gender discrimination policy. If the ERA ever does become law, a conservative Supreme Court could kill it, or at least render it so weak that it’s useless.

There’s already some evidence that Barrett would oblige. Since she first appeared on Trump’s shortlist in 2018, her anti-choice views have generated references to The Handmaid’s Tale. So does her membership in People of Praise, a “covenant community” that promotes strict gender roles with an emphasis on the submission of women, and which once called female members “handmaidens.” In an appellate court ruling last year, she found that Purdue University may have discriminated against a male student accused of sexual assault. “It is plausible,” she wrote, that university officials “chose to believe [the complainant] Jane because she is a woman and to disbelieve John because he is a man.” It isn’t that plausible, given the rarity of false sexual assault claims. But anti-feminism is a form of denialism. Women didn’t need the ERA, Schlafly argued, because they faced no discrimination. Most didn’t want careers, or fancy educations. They were happy with the privileges they had in the home.

Schlafly, famously, was no housewife, and Barrett is even more of a career woman. Conservative women with professional lives often invite accusations of hypocrisy: The label dogged Schlafly from the 1970s until the end of her life. But liberals don’t help themselves or any of their causes by taking the right-wing’s bait. Something deeper and more threatening than hypocrisy is at work. Schlafly was a pioneer for women. She uncovered the great loophole. For her successors in the Christian right, there is now one acceptable way to take a piece of male authority for themselves, and it runs through professional anti-feminism. The Schlafly track is about power, not ideological purity. Barrett may become its greatest success — a culture warrior almost without equal.

For all the power the right wing is about to hand her, though, Barrett has indeed chosen a self-limiting ideology, and not just because of her views on Roe. Conservative women aren’t interested solely in abolishing abortion, or in limiting the scope of modern gender equality laws. Schlafly was an anti-communist who belonged to the John Birch Society before she ever campaigned against the ERA. Her anti-feminism comprised one strand of a comprehensively dangerous ideology. The women who serve the Trump administration aren’t much different, and neither is Barrett. A Supreme Court justice with right-wing perspectives on labor, the environment, immigration, and criminal justice can harm women from all backgrounds in all aspects of their lives. That is the intention, and not the accidental byproduct, of constitutional originalism. As embraced by jurists like Barrett and her old boss, Antonin Scalia, originalism is its own dogma; the extension of a political theology committed to an older and more exclusionary version of America.

Barrett understands all that. She’s exactly as intelligent as her advocates say, and she’s made all her choices with a sound mind. Her reward is power. If she’s confirmed by the Senate, she’ll be able to finish what Schlafly once started. She could help lock in Trump for another four years. She’ll be able to deal democracy and yes, the feminist movement the blows the Christian right has dreamed of landing for years.

Feminism shouldn’t be any less ruthless. There are several explanations for the right’s out-maneuvering of the women’s movement. One is the preponderance of a choose-your-choice feminism that had more in common with a branding campaign than it did with real politics. But another is the movement’s reliance on a Democratic Party that has only ever been  intermittently committed to the progress of women. Schlafly and her housewives helped remake the GOP. Feminists must do the same to the party of Joe Biden. No compromise on abortion. No compromise on trans rights. No compromise on matters of economic justice, like a living wage and paid leave. If that sounds too risky, remember the stakes, and something else, too. Public opinion is not on the side of the conservative movement. The future is there for feminists, and the left, to win.

Amy Coney Barrett and the Triumph of Phyllis Schlafly