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An evolving definition of 'radical feminism'

President Obama alongside judicial nominee Nina Pillard in June.
President Obama alongside judicial nominee Nina Pillard in June.Associated Press

In early June, President Obama took a long overdue step on judicial nominees: with three vacancies on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the nation's second most important federal bench, he sent the Senate three qualified and uncontroversial jurists to fill those slots.

Ever since, Republican officials have responded with structural criticisms -- arguing, for example, that the D.C. Circuit should have fewer seats and that the White House is trying a "court-packing" scheme. (Republicans have apparently forgotten the meaning of the word.)

But in recent days, the GOP line has shifted. The right has apparently decided one of Obama's nominees -- Cornelia "Nina" Pillard -- is simply too radical to be confirmed. Why? Because as Dahlia Lithwick explained, Pillard is a feminist.

She is a well-respected professor at Georgetown Law School; co-director of its Supreme Court Institute; a former lawyer at the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Justice Department; and a successful Supreme Court litigator.

She is also a "feminist."

A "feminist" insofar as she has spent part of her career advocating for women's equality (including a successful brief challenging the men-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, and a successful challenge to gender-biased family leave policies). Pillard's "radical feminism" appears largely to take the form of seeking equality for women, which would certainly be a disqualifying feature of her advocacy work. If it were 1854.

In the not-too-distant past, no one seriously expected judicial nominees to reach the Senate confirmation phase as blank slates, never having expressed an opinion on anything. As Ian Millhiser noted the other day, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in 2011 that her ACLU work on behalf of women's rights before becoming a judge "would probably disqualify" her if she were nominated today.

And while that's very likely true, it doesn't make the right's criticism of Pillard any less ridiculous.

Lithwick added:

This episode has some of the same-old, same-old quality that has led most Americans to tune out the judicial confirmation wars as partisan and predictable on both sides. But to do so is to misunderstand the nature and basis of right-wing attacks on Pillard. She isn't being condemned for what most Americans view as radical feminist activism. She's being shellacked for academic and litigation work devoted to pushing for basic women's equality.

Such as? Well, she's argued women should have access to contraception. Pillard has also criticized gender-based double standards in many abstinence-only curricula -- a point that led Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to baselessly suggest that Pillard believes abstinence-only education is unconstitutional.

Millhiser concluded, "Ultimately, what's at stake in the Pillard confirmation fight is whether a woman who devoted her career to advancing women's equality in the workplace, in the classroom and in the bedroom is disqualified from the bench because of her fight for equality."

For much of the right, the answer is an unqualified "yes." If the left doesn't push back with equal fervor, it's missing an important opportunity.