From Ginsberg to Barrett: Where next for American feminism?

Susie Chilver reflects on the loss of feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg and reminds us that, with the appointment of pro-life Republican Amy Coney Barrett, the fight for women’s rights is far from over.

In the UK we can’t quite grasp the loss that the USA felt when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September. A champion of gender equality, RBG was a true feminist icon. Through landmark cases ranging from pay disparity to education accessibility, she is credited with bringing the fact that gender discrimination was fundamentally unconstitutional to light. From her undergraduate days at the Ivy League Cornell University and throughout her whole academic and professional career, RBG was always acutely aware of the minority she found herself in as a Jewish woman in the world of law, and literally died fighting to progress society. 

So, what to make of her replacement on the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett? Hounded by the left-wing media as a fundamentally religious threat to women’s rights, but a shining, innocent example of what a woman should be in the eyes of many conservatives, where does she really stand, and how does she compare to the Notorious RBG?

Should we even be comparing them in the first place? Is there this much division when a man replaces a man on the Supreme Court? Of course, replacing one of the USA’s national treasures is going to attract more attention and criticism, plus Barrett’s anti-abortion stance is in some ways more shocking than if it were a male justice’s (there have been plenty of those…). More so, her appointment by Trump, arguably one of the most polarising political leaders in recent history, was always going to attract controversy. RBG herself stated on her deathbed that, “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”. None of this really does Barrett any favours. 

But is all the criticism she received really based on her as a lawyer, or is she held to an unfair standard because she is a woman replacing a feminist pioneer? To criticise any sort of political appointment made and to keep a watchful eye of the goings-on in such a high office as the Supreme Court is a right we should definitely exercise. Nevertheless, as women and/or feminists, we must make sure our judgements are not the product of internalised misogyny, and that defence or support of professional women – including Barrett – is made where necessary.

That being said, should we be there for Amy Coney Barrett if she is not there for us? Barrett has received both a lot of praise and criticism for her lifelong membership of the Christian organisation People of Praise, which has a staunch stance against same-sex marriage. She is also anti-abortion – this must not be overlooked. On the one hand, as an intelligent and successful lawyer, it could be somewhat insulting to presume she cannot separate her faith and opinions from her job and its requirements. Then again, pro-life Republicans have lauded her appointment as a win for them and a step in the “right direction”.  

With the Supreme Court being a key part of the political process in America, this is pretty terrifying – an overturning of Roe v Wade (1973) or any pro-life ruling turns the clock back for women in America. This will come at the total detriment to anyone in America seeking a safe abortion.  A fundamental human right, any sort of threat to abortion access is cause for serious alarm. We cannot be supportive of any person of any gender, especially in a position of serious power, who is willing to debate whether or not pregnant people can have access to this fundamental, necessary right. This is no empty threat, or just an inkling of some far-away potential risk. There are parts of America where these rights have already begun to be chipped away at: in May last year, Alabama attempted to enforce a state-wide abortion ban, with no exceptions to the legislation; in fact, by June 2019, nearly thirty states had begun to introduce stricter abortion laws, including many that would ban it from six weeks into a pregnancy – often too early for the woman to even realise she is pregnant. 

Amy Coney Barrett appears to be a stark contrast to the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is fantastic that a woman has peaked in her male-dominated career, and that a woman takes the seat of RBG on the Supreme Court. The effect of having women in positions of high judicial, and therefore political, power will continue to show and in a superficial sense this is great for feminism. However, it is what Barrett represents and believes to be fundamentally right that will ultimately demonstrate how much progress is truly being made for feminism following this appointment.

Only time will tell whether Barrett presents an opportunity or a challenge for women’s rights. She has inherited the power to continue Ginsberg’s legacy of making the world a better place for other women; but we will have to wait to see how she uses it.

The state of feminism is not as bleak as it seems. What the response to RBG’s death and replacement shows is that people fervently care. It is ridiculous that the pro-life versus pro-choice debate is still ongoing, but debate and discourse is better than surrendering to resigned complacency as abortion rights are eroded. People are genuinely mourning the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, showing how much she did for women, how much she did as a woman, and how much of a role model she has been and continues to be. We should not let the appointment of a pro-life judge overshadow the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has empowered women to fight for their equality, and the outcry and debate surrounding Barrett’s ascension prove that we are not giving up any time soon… or ever. The fight is depressingly far from over – but at least it’s still a fight.

Artwork by Verity Germon.

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