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Senate Republicans used Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court hearing to lionize white moms

The GOP message was clear: Motherhood is both a professional and moral virtue. But only if you're a certain kind of mother.
Image: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, US-VOTE-JUSTICE
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett is sworn into her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 12, 2020.Alex Edelman / AFP - Getty Images

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first of four days of confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The first day featured close to six hours of opening statements, during which Republican senators brought repeated attention to Barrett’s identity as the mother of a large family.

The first day featured close to six hours of opening statements, during which Republican senators brought repeated attention to Barrett’s identity as the mother of a large family.

“Judge Barrett, you and I have a number of things in common,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who tested positive for Covid-19 less than two weeks ago, said during his (in-person) opening remarks. “We’re both raised in large families. In fact, we're both one of seven children. In your case, as I recall, you're the oldest of seven children. Which means long before you had your own seven children you were also the de facto mother to many others. The way things often work in large families, is such that the oldest child very often takes on responsibilities at an early age. Those responsibilities have undoubtedly helped you throughout life.”

It was a theme Republicans would return to over and over. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, held up Barrett as an example of “what a mom can do.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, claimed that Barrett would serve as a source of inspiration for young women looking to find that ever-allusive “personal and professional life” balance. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, described Barrett as a “tireless mother of seven.”

The GOP message, of course, was clear: motherhood is both a professional and moral virtue. If you are against Barrett, you are against motherhood and progress and women and virtue. Indeed, just by nature of her large family, Republicans seemed to say, Barrett has proven she is ethically exemplary and worthy of a seat on the Supreme Court.

But only if you’re married. And only if you’re straight. And only if you’re wealthy. And only if you’re white. Because the GOP has a very different message when discussing Black, brown, single and queer moms.

If you’re a Black mom with a couple of kids, you could very well be what President Ronald Reagan notoriously dubbed a “welfare Queen” — a lazy mother who refuses to get a job and is instead happy to keep popping out children for the government to fund. In the Republican party’s repeated and ongoing attempts to cut federal funding for vital social programs that, hypocritically enough, are a lifeline for countless American families, they demonize Black moms and criminalize Black motherhood.

And if you’re a brown mom, the GOP is concerned you may be straining the American economy. In 2015, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump referred to the children of immigrants as “anchor babies” — a racist description used to accuse Immigrant mothers of using their children to secure U.S. citizenship.

The GOP has a very different message when discussing Black, brown, single and queer moms.

If you’re a queer mom (or dad), the GOP isn’t sure if you’re fit to be a parent at all. Just earlier this year, Tennessee Republicans passed a law allowing adoption agencies to deny the applications of gay couples on the basis of their gender and/or sexual identity. And in June, the Trump administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that any taxpayer-funded organization should have the right to refuse to work with same-sex couples under the guise of religious liberty.

The same Republicans who applauded the number of children Barrett has decided to have and care for have spent their entire careers attacking less fortunate women for doing the same. In 2018, Republicans proposed cutting a total of $17 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade, a program which helps tens of million of children and their families afford to eat every month. Republicans have also argued for cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, both of which are disproportionately utilized by women.

And of course, motherhood is only inspirational to Republicans if it is preceded by marriage. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that it was marriage, not welfare programs and other social safety nets, that can pull moms out of poverty. In 1994, then-Senate candidate Rick Santorum — who years later would attempt to become president — argued that women having “children out of wedlock” were to blame for ruining the country and were “breeding more criminals.” And in 2014, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., opined about how difficult it was for the government to be able to tell single moms that “enough’s enough, you shouldn’t be having kids after a certain amount.”

All of which is to say, the GOP has a very clear, very focused idea of what motherhood should look like. So why does this matter? Barrett is certainly free to have as many — or as few — children as she wishes. At least theoretically. What’s frustrating is the way Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are more than willing to use her specific type of motherhood to position her as the logical successor to the trailblazing Ginsburg.

And it will be Black, brown, poor, single, and queer moms who, once again, disproportionately pay the price.

In 2006, Barrett signed a letter calling for the end of Roe v Wade. Currently, the majority of people who have are abortions are Black. Barrett has criticized the Affordable Care Act and many health care advocates are worried she would vote to gut the law should she be confirmed. Prior to the passing of the ACA, women could be charged more for health care than men and pregnancy could be considered a pre-existing condition. After the ACA was passed, an estimated 1.6 million moms secured health insurance between 2013 and 2014, according to the Urban Institute. And Barrett has argued that marriage equality should not be the law of the land, but left up to individual states.

Republican Senators and conservative talking heads love Barrett for many reasons. But on Monday they made a coordinated effort to paint her as the perfect symbol of working parenthood because, in doing so, they can continue their attacks on parents who don’t look like Barrett, don’t think like Barrett, don’t love like Barrett, and don’t benefit from their policies... like Barrett.