Amy Coney Barrett and the New Feminism of Interdependence | Opinion

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is shining a light on a group of American women who all too often go ignored: those who celebrate the opportunities created by earlier generations of feminists, but believe that many of their fundamental assumptions contradict the most important aspects of womanhood.

On Saturday, Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times that Barrett's "combination of elite accomplishment with a faith and a family life that's unusual among her high-achieving peers" raises an important question: "can there be a conservative feminism that's distinctive, coherent and influential?" In Douthat's view, the reason this kind of feminism "doesn't play a substantial role in our politics right now is that it hasn't been distilled into a compelling policy agenda—pro-woman, pro-mother, pro-work-life-balance—by our increasingly male-dominated conservative party."

Douthat is right. It's time for a new kind of feminism to emerge—and for GOP lawmakers to demonstrate that their commitment to family values is more than just lip service. That will require two significant shifts. The first is a philosophical one, defining a new feminism of interdependence rather than radical autonomy. The second is a political one, pursuing a pro-family economic agenda.

In spite of their many disagreements, nearly all prominent feminists have shared an underlying commitment to the ideal of autonomy: the idea that women should be able to freely choose their commitments, relationships, jobs and identities. This conception of autonomy as essential to fulfillment has also long been embraced by the Supreme Court. In a famous passage from his decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for example, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Exercising our capacity to freely choose and act is indeed essential to crafting a fulfilling life. But what if meaning, the universe and the mystery of human life exist outside our own minds, such that we cannot simply reshape them at will? Surely an essential part of a life well lived is the freedom to pursue an understanding of the objective nature of reality—and of our own nature as women and as human beings. When we exercise that freedom, it quickly becomes clear that the myth of radical autonomy is woefully inadequate to explain the beautiful mystery of human existence, which is steeped in essential and inescapable interdependence.

Interdependence feminism accepts the reality of the human body. We come into being as radically dependent embryos, unable to survive without the active receptivity of our mothers' bodies. For mothers, the vulnerability of our unborn children bestows a responsibility on us to protect and care for the new life that has taken root within us. Pregnancy highlights the incredible power of the female body, which can grow an entirely new person inside of itself. Yet it also makes us aware of how fragile, weak and dependent we are, too.

Women's march
Anti-abortion demonstrators hold signs at the 2020 Women's March on January 18, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Zach Gibson/Getty

I know this first hand. After I had my first child, I got pregnant again at seven months postpartum. I was still getting up many times each night nursing my daughter when first-trimester exhaustion set in. As the pregnancy hormones dried up my milk supply and made breastfeeding excruciatingly painful, my baby woke up more and more frequently, biting me in her frustration and hunger and leaving me in tears. I was confronted with my weakness. My daughters demanded more from me than I was physically able to give. Both then and now, I simply could not be everything that they needed—not by myself.

Thankfully, I can depend on my husband. We bought formula, and he took over the night feedings. Women deserve supportive husbands like mine—men who will step up when we need them. But the interdependence doesn't end there. Families raising children are doing work that is essential to our society. Too often, they feel alone in that work—exhausted, isolated and beset by financial worries. This isn't how it should be.

In recent months, the fragility of American families and their precarious financial states have become impossible to ignore. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dangers of a societal model in which isolated and rootless nuclear families depend upon public schools and paid childcare providers to provide basic necessities. Help for struggling American families should include both private initiatives and public programs, working together to build thicker communities and promote the common good without usurping parental authority. Whether the answer is moving closer to extended family members, hiring a babysitter, having one parent stay home, forming "pandemic pods" or enrolling the kids in preschool for in-person instruction, parents are the only ones with the knowledge to make the best decisions for their own families. Government programs should aim to support parents while respecting their prudential judgement, enabling them to choose the right arrangement for their needs and risk tolerance.

Of course, all these arrangements require money—something that may be in short supply given widespread employment disruptions and the expiration and subsequent reduction of the CARES Act's $600 weekly unemployment benefit. Unfortunately, as the pandemic has shifted from a shocking crisis to a slow burn of chaos and suffering, political will to direct government funds to families has waned.

Over the summer and into the fall, lawmakers have wrestled over whether to approve a second relief bill, and how extensive that bill should be. This battle has exposed familiar fault lines, with the Democrats' HEROES Act pushing $3 trillion in spending and the Republicans' HEALS Act attempting to hold the line at $1 trillion. The Democrats' bill included a one-year version of the American Family Act—a piece of legislation that childcare policy analyst Elliot Haspel has called "the Easy button for a pandemic parent bailout." The bill would would reform and increase the current Child Tax Credit and make it fully refundable, to be paid out in advance on a monthly basis. In effect, this would establish a small monthly child allowance of $300 per month for children five and under and $250 per month for children six and up. It's time for GOP lawmakers to stop clinging to laissez-faire idealism and start supporting pro-family economic proposals like these.

For women who embrace interdependence feminism, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett is a hopeful gesture with exciting judicial implications. But if Republican politicians truly want to strengthen civil society, build a strong political coalition in the post-Trump era and earn the votes of these women in the process, they need to start putting their money where their mouths are. From paid parental leave to a child allowance, programs designed to ensure that caring for children won't leave families bankrupt would be a good place to start.

Serena Sigillito is Editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute. As a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies, she is currently working on a project titled "Women's Work: How Modern Moms Find Fulfillment in Caregiving and Career Building." You can follow her work here.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.