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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Judith Levine

Rightwing US supreme court justices are in trouble. So they’ve discovered feminism

‘An inverted American flag … flew in front of Justice Samuel Alito’s home … But Alito says his wife, Martha-Ann, ran her opinion up the flagpole … ’
‘An inverted American flag … flew in front of Justice Samuel Alito’s home … But Alito says his wife, Martha-Ann, ran her opinion up the flagpole … ’ Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

At the start of her rallies, Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who defeated the equal rights amendment, always thanked her husband, Fred, for letting her out of the house.

Ah, those were the days.

Husbands have lost their control. And, it would seem, none more than the poor schlubs on the bench of the supreme court of the United States.

Before January 6, Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, the far-right activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, plunged deep into the “Stop the Steal” movement, which attempted to frame Joe Biden’s fair and free election as rigged. She sent dozens of texts to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, egging him on to overturn the election. Later, she claimed Clarence had nothing to do with it.

“Like so many married couples, we share many of the same ideals, principles, and aspirations for America,” Ginni Thomas told the Washington Free Beacon in early 2022. “But we have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too. Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work.”

Nevertheless, questioned by the congressional January 6 committee as to whether she conferred with anyone about the texts, she allowed that she’d spoken to her “best friend” – Clarence. She couldn’t remember the “specifics”, she said. But “my husband often administers spousal support to the wife that’s upset.”

Meadows filed an amicus brief in Trump’s appeal to withhold documents from the investigators; the texts, including Ginni Thomas’s, were included in the subpoenaed materials. Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter in the supreme court’s rejection of Trump’s appeal.

Jane Sullivan Roberts – Mrs Chief Justice John Roberts – earned over $10m recruiting conservative government lawyers to elite law firms precisely during the years of her husband’s tenure on the court. Although some of these firms appear before the court, the Robertses insist that her work is her own and poses no conflict of interest for him. Anyway, according to a former colleague of Jane’s, nothing exchanged was more consequential than the chitchat at any Washington cocktail party.

“Friends of John were mostly friends of Jane,” the colleague told Insider. “And while it certainly did not harm her access to top people to have John as her spouse, I never saw her ‘use’ that inappropriately.”

Just affectionate give-and-take, like the uber-luxurious gifts bestowed on the Thomases by the rightwing billionaires Clarence met after ascending to the supreme court.

And now we learn that an inverted American flag – ensign of Maga insurrectionists, carried by many during the Capitol riot – flew in front of Justice Samuel Alito’s home in January 2021, three days before Joe Biden’s swearing-in as president.

But Alito – who is about to sign the ruling on whether Trump is immune from prosecution for inciting the riot or, for that matter, anything else he ever does – says he never touched, or apparently looked at or commented on, the flag. His wife, Martha-Ann, ran her opinion up the flagpole during a neighborly tiff. “I had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag,” the justice said in an email to the New York Times. “It was briefly placed by Mrs Alito in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.” She is her own woman.

This is the same Samuel Alito who opined in Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1991 that requiring the husband’s consent for an abortion did not impose an undue burden on the woman, and in fact, served a compelling state interest. Different strokes for different folks.

And then there’s Amy Coney Barrett, who served as a “handmaiden” for the male-supremacist Christian sect People of Praise, advising wives on submitting to the “headship” of their husbands.

So here’s the ideology of the court’s conservative majority: a husband should rule over his wife except when he declares her independence because the ideologies she clearly shares with him might cause him trouble.

The women on the court are not indulging in this ploy. Why not? “He does what he wants” might be more credible. It’s not that they’re good because they’re women. Two of them have scant opportunity for family-related conflicts of interest. Sonia Sotomayor is divorced. Elena Kagan never married. Neither of them has children. Meanwhile, a conservative law firm has filed an ethics complaint against Ketanji Brown Jackson for not disclosing income from her husband’s medical malpractice consulting. If the contention is true, her omission is illegal, not to mention unethical. But it would be a stretch to call it political. And Brown hasn’t blamed her husband.

Jennifer Weiner recently argued in the New York Times that “Blame my wife,” an excuse employed by Republicans and Democrats alike, might indicate “the faintest glimmer of progress” – feminist progress. “When a Supreme Court justice blames his wife, he is also acknowledging that his wife has the ability to act on her own ideas, has a mind confoundingly of her own,” Weiner wrote.

Nah. The men who stripped half the US population of a 50-year-old right of bodily autonomy have not osmosed feminism despite themselves. Rather, they are exploiting feminism: impersonating pro-feminist men when it serves them and screwing women (and the less powerful in general) when it doesn’t. Mr Nice Guy; no more Mr Nice Guy. That’s patriarchal privilege.

The male justices are also implicitly invoking a right that feminists, along with Black and LGBTQ+ civil rights activists, conceived and won: the right to relational privacy. By contending that their professional thoughts and actions are unaffected by their wives’, the justices communicate that no one else knows what goes on inside their marriages and no one has the prerogative to eavesdrop on their breakfast table conversations or evaluate the meanings and effects of what is said there.

The sanctity of privacy in intimate behavior, including the rights of married couples to use contraception, of queer people to have sex and marry each other and of pregnant people to end their pregnancies, did not spring from the heads of supreme court justices. But supreme court justices can take them away. In fact, these are the rights, and the cases involving them, that Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, urged the court to “reconsider” – presumably to overturn, as it overturned Roe. Thomas did not mention whether Loving v Virginia, the 1967 case securing the right to interracial marriage, like his own, should be reconsidered. Maybe he needs to talk it over with Ginni.

In March 1776 the first lady, Abigail Adams, wrote to her husband, President John Adams, exercising her influence as a highly placed political wife. She implored him to “Remember the Ladies” when he and the other founding fathers were declaring independence and writing the laws that would follow.

But that’s just the famous part of the letter. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands,” Mrs Adams continued, playing on the language of freedom from colonial rule. “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

American feminists have rekindled that Rebelion. Some chose to make noise in front of Alito’s home to express their rage at his majority opinion in Dobbs. They wanted “to bring the protest to [the Alitos’] personal lives because the decisions affect our personal lives”, said one demonstrator. The personal is political, as much for the men in black robes as it is for the rest of us.

  • Judith Levine is a Brooklyn journalist and essayist, a contributing writer to the Intercept, and the author of five books

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