Georgetown law professor Cornelia “Nina” Pillard, one of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is one of the country’s most renowned women’s rights attorneys. She crafted the argument that convinced a nearly unanimous Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women. She worked alongside Bush administration attorneys to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act in the courts. She has opposed government policies that treat men and women differently based on outmoded stereotypes that harm both sexes.
So, of course, conservative activists and their Republican allies in Congress are calling her a “radical feminist" and threatening to filibuster her nomination.
In an interview with the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins Friday, National Review columnist Ed Whelan called Pillard a “radical feminist law professor” and insisted that she would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”
Phyllis Schlafly – who, of course, also opposed the opening of VMI to women and the Family and Medical Leave Act – calls Pillard a “scary feminist.”
The Family Research Council has also gone after Pillard, skewing the meaning of her words and even citing her use of a phrase that was actually written by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist as evidence of her “militant feminism.”
And just this weekend, right-wing activist "Dr. Chaps" Gordon Klingenschmitt sent out an email to his backers attacking Pillard's support for women's rights, specifically charging that Pillard “attacked and questioned the Virginia Military Institute” when she argued that VMI should admit women.
Senate Republicans have picked up this line of attack. In Pillard’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee’s Republicans (all men) latched onto the nominee’s support of reproductive rights. When fellow nominee Robert Wilkins appeared before the committee last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley tried, unsuccessfully, to trick him into dissing Pillard’s writings.
So what exactly is it that makes Pillard such a “radical”/“militant”/“scary” feminist in the eyes of the Right?
In a series of columns last month, Whelan elaborated on what he meant. He takes particular issue with a 2007 law review article in which Pillard argues that many public school abstinence-only sex-ed curricula impose a double standard on girls – hardly a radical observation. She also specifically wrote that she took no position on the abstinence message itself. Nevertheless, Whelan and others have distorted this into the idea that she would strike down all abstinence programs as unconstitutional, which is not at all what she has said. In Pillard’s own words,
[The article] brings into focus those curricula's persistent, official promulgation of retrogressive, anti-egalitarian sexual ideologies-of male pleasure and female shame, male recreation and female responsibility, male agency and female passivity, and male personhood and female parenthood. I argue for a counter-stereotyping sex education that affirms women's and men's desire, sexual agency, and responsibility.
She explained her thoughts further in her hearing before the judiciary committee:
Let me say first, I'm a mother. I have two teenage children — one boy and one girl. If my children are being taught in sex education, I want both my children to be taught to say 'no,' not just my daughter. I want my son to be taught that, too. The article was very explicit in saying I don't see any constitutional objection … to abstinence-only education that does not rely upon and promulgate sex stereotypes.
This argument – that many government-funded sex-ed curricula promote harmful and regressive stereotypes that cheat girls – is what has made right-wing activists go ballistic.
Pillard has also made it exceedingly clear that she knows the difference between testing out legal theories in law review articles and applying them as a judge. As she said in her hearing, “Academics are paid to test the boundaries and look at the implications of things. As a judge, I would apply established law of the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit” – a sentiment that many Republican senators echoed when they were defending Bush nominees who had in the past expressed opinions not consistent with existing law.
To put it simply, what conservatives object to about Pillard is that she believes in women’s equality and that she’s really, really good at making the legal case for it. In 2013 in the Republican Party, that’s what it takes to qualify as a “scary,” “radical” and “militant” feminist.