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Sexism is never okay (unless I think you’re wrong)

| Tuesday, October 13, 2020

It’s fair to say that these past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind — I keep feeling like every day I need a recap of all the news from the previous day, like the ones they put at the beginning of TV episodes. Yet, through all the debates and discussions and COVID-19 diagnoses, I’ve found one thing that’s stuck with me, permeating all the noise. With women like Amy Coney Barrett and Kamala Harris sitting in the center of the political universe, I’ve noticed that sexism has snuck back into public discourse in a really sinister way.

As a female political science major, the sexism faced by women in politics often feels particularly personal. I’m hoping to enter a career in which my ideas are respected, my intelligence is acknowledged and I have access to the same opportunities as my male colleagues. While I recognize that politics is a notoriously exclusive field, I hoped that at the very least, I would be able to avoid outright misogyny. Based on the events of the past few weeks, I’m feeling increasingly disheartened about that goal.

In case you’ve missed it, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and there is only one biographical fact you need to know about her: She has seven children! The New York Post inadvertently summarized the sexist way Barrett’s nomination to the highest court in the land has been framed in the first line of their profile of her: “Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a wife, mother of seven, and a devout Catholic.”

The fact that Barrett is a wife and a mother are likely parts of her identity that she finds personally important, but they have next to nothing to do with her capabilities as a legal mind. Especially coming from those on the left who are opposed to her nomination, the repeated emphasis of her motherhood comes with an unspoken implication: How could she possibly be a good Supreme Court Justice and a good mother?

The misogyny is perhaps more overt from the right, however. After Senator Kamala Harris’ participation in last week’s vice presidential debate, many Republican lawmakers commented on her performance in unmistakably gendered ways. Her colleagues in the Senate shared their thoughts on Twitter: Marco Rubio tweeted a joke relying on the sexist stereotype that women can’t be trusted with national security, and Chuck Grassley expressed his belief that Vice President Pence won the debate because he was more likable. President Trump, on the other hand, was more straightforward, calling Senator Harris a monster. Once again, critiques of Harris invoked her womanhood, in and of itself, as disqualifying.

At this point, I feel that it’s important to say that I don’t think Amy Coney Barrett would be a good Supreme Court Justice, and I don’t think her nomination is a step forward for women. Her legal and political beliefs are far more conservative than mine, and I tend to believe that her record restricting abortion rights would make this country much more dangerous for most women. Additionally, despite being more aligned with her views, I believe that Kamala Harris has a record worth critiquing, and that some of her past policies (like jailing single mothers for their children’s truancy) are decidedly bad for women.

What has always been odd to me about relying on misogyny to take down women in politics is that they usually have a substantial public record worthy of criticism. More so than any other public figures, women with a career in politics make decisions and enact policies that can be extremely controversial and debatable. By resorting to sexist attacks, all critics do is expose their own misogynistic tendencies and cheapen legitimate critiques of their targets.

Given both of their extraordinarily high levels of professional success, it seems pretty clear to me that Barrett can probably balance a career with seven children, and that Harris’ hormones don’t influence her decision-making capabilities. They have earned the right to have their careers discussed honestly, and in good faith. In general, I don’t tend to subscribe to the notion that putting women in positions of power, regardless of the impacts they have, is a feminist act in and of itself. However, it is clear to me that making sexist arguments to prevent women from gaining political power is an inherently anti-feminist act.

The question may be popping into your head about now: Why does this even matter? These are both incredibly successful women who will survive a few mean tweets. That is absolutely true, and good feminism, in the same way that it understands that any woman gaining power is not progress, recognizes that the true struggle for equality happens on the ground level. It involves helping low-income women whose reproductive rights would be threatened by Barrett, or providing aid to the single mothers jailed by Harris to help them pay for their next meal.

This conversation still matters, though, because we cannot permit sexism against any woman, even if we don’t like her, or even if we think she deserves it. We cannot continue to foster a culture in which sexism is seen as a political tool and not a rejection of women’s humanity. By the time I graduate from Notre Dame with my political science degree, I hope we have moved even one step closer to a world in which my gender is not innately disqualifying, and women like me can be assessed, for better or for worse, on our merits.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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