In the rush to replace Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court, we’ve heard a lot of praise from Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s supporters about her role as a mother, including references to the fact that she will be the first “working mother with school-age children” to sit on the highest court.
Interestingly, however, raising children is rarely, if ever, commented on when men are being considered for high-profile public service jobs, even though many of the men who have sat on the Supreme Court bench have also been parents. Suggesting it’s somehow “special” for a female justice to also be a parent reinforces sexist stereotypes about both men and women in our society. It upholds the notion that the role of mother is the highest aspiration for all women no matter their other accomplishments, while men can be both fathers and accomplished in their careers.
The real insult, however, is in how insincere this praise and support are for working mothers beyond Judge Barrett. The bitter reality is that many in our society – from lawmakers to community leaders to members of the media – promote policies and narratives that reinforce rigid gender stereotypes and are more likely to punish mothers who work outside of the home, especially if they are low-income, women of color, or part of the LGBTQ community.
Whether or not a woman decides to have children, there will be people who will judge her decisions. While some praise white middle-class/elite women like Judge Barrett for having seven children, women of color and immigrant women are often demonized for having large families, accused of having children solely to increase their welfare benefits or claim residency status. Too many in our society, including Judge Barrett and her supporters, also want to prevent LGBTQ folks from raising children at all.
It’s also disappointing to have her supporters equate her adoption of a Black child to her willingness to advance anti-racist laws, as if her track record of denying the impact of racism and not supporting racial justice issues doesn’t speak for itself. Let’s be clear: this country and its longstanding white supremacist institutions were built by many white men who had Black children. Parenthood alone is not the litmus test for how likely someone is to advance a racial equity agenda.
Here in North Carolina, low-income women of any race rarely find support for their families from policymakers. It’s still too easy for North Carolina employers to fire pregnant workers, and affordable, quality childcare and pre-K education remain out of reach for many families.
Women workers in North Carolina make up over half of the low-wage workers in the state, many of them raising children, yet raising the minimum wage for “pink-collar workers” in the hospitality, child care, and home healthcare industries continues to meet hostile resistance from the political leadership at the North Carolina General Assembly.
North Carolina is also one of a handful of states that has still not expanded Medicaid, leaving many low-income mothers unable to access affordable health insurance under the state’s current program. Judge Barrett has been critical of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the rush to put her on the Court before it hears the case to repeal the ACA (scheduled for November 10) has many worried the ACA could be dismantled. In North Carolina alone, that would mean 607,000 people could lose coverage – including 70,000 young adults and 96,000 children.
And, of course, a healthcare crisis was already in place in the U.S. when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, another issue that has fallen hardest on women. Those low-wage workers who were not worth a living wage were suddenly deemed “essential workers,” even though that title didn’t necessarily come with sustained higher pay, access to paid sick and family leave, or flexibility in balancing increased child care needs with children now home from school.
For the many mothers now working from home, the new challenge of having to help children with remote learning while juggling the demands of the job have left them stuck between being “the ideal worker” and “the good mother” and feeling penalized for living up to neither standard. A recent survey showed one in three mothers working outside the home is considering taking themselves off their career track or out of the workplace altogether.
We are also seeing that when working mothers are seen – either remotely or in-person – openly juggling paid work and parenting duties, their employers are falling back on stereotypes and biases to judge their work performance negatively. Again, these biases were firmly in place before the pandemic. It’s been documented that women often receive less pay the more children they have while the pay for fathers is bumped up. Meanwhile, mothers who work outside the home are frequently considered “distracted” when taking time off to care for their children, while fathers are considered “caring.”
In short, mothers working outside the home, particularly women of color, have never had the support they need to balance their duties as workers and caretakers fully. And the novelty of being the “first female Justice to have school-age children” says more about how our society has set working mothers up to fail rather than anything about Judge Barrett’s achievements. How have many talented, smart, hardworking, and accomplished women had to set aside their career aspirations because they weren’t allowed to be mothers in the workplace?
Given what appears to be the strong likelihood that a Justice Barrett’s conservative ideology will end up favoring corporations over workers’ rights and placing hard-won reproductive rights, voting rights, and civil rights in jeopardy, it may be many more years before a mother of school-age children reaches the Supreme Court bench again. We need a Supreme Court that is committed to protecting the rights of all of us, not just those in power.
Charnessa Ridley is the President of North Carolina Women United.