FORGET Notorious RBG, there’s a new girlboss in town and she’s ready to make landmark legal rulings along with the big boys. That has, in essence, been the message of the American right’s vacuous attempt at marketing Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett as feminist over the last week.

With her body barely cold in the ground, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memeified moniker has swiftly been repurposed to create a shero for a new era: the Glorious ACB. Yes, that is a real hashtag and you can already get the T-shirt, if you feel so moved.

Ever since President Donald Trump announced his pick for the new justice, days after confirming he would nominate a woman – “because I actually like women much more than men” – Barrett’s gender has been front and centre of the discussion.

Republicans have leapt at the chance to use the pop iconography of RBG for their own benefit, as if one woman with a ground-breaking career spanning over half a century could be seamlessly replaced with another, like a Westworld robot whose chip malfunctioned. And, while the right has sought to characterise Barrett as a beacon of “conservative feminism” (whatever that is when it’s at home), many have reacted with understandable disgust and derision that her nomination could be treated as a win for women.

Avowedly anti-abortion, Barrett signed a newspaper ad in 2006 defending “the right to life from fertilization to natural death”. Later, she signed a 2012 letter opposing a provision of the Affordable Care Act which required medical insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception. And, in the last three years as a judge on the 7th Circuit, Barrett was among dissenters who wanted two cases reheard after it was ruled that abortion laws in Indiana were unduly restrictive.

It has also emerged that Barrett has been involved for decades in a secretive Christian “covenant community” called People of Praise, which former members have said is “highly authoritarian” and requires women to “submit in all things” to their husbands.

To Barrett’s supporters – or, more accurately, supporters of whoever Trump was going to nominate – none of this is seen as contradictory to her credentials as a feminist. In the words of one conservative columnist, Barrett’s confirmation would “demonstrate that liberal activists have too long perpetuated a false dichotomy: that either you must be aligned with radical leftist beliefs, or be subject to the patriarchy”.

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In other words: by succeeding in cultivating an illustrious career and gaining a position of considerable power, all with seven children in tow and an apparently supportive husband to boot, Barrett is living proof that feminism in action has no ideology.

This is an argument based on the false premise that “feminism” is about individual women doing what they want and succeeding. That might be nice for the women in question, it may even make them impressive and admirable, but one woman breaking the “glass ceiling” does not a social movement make.

When presented in the aid of someone with blatantly right-wing views, this kind of rhetoric is easy to pick apart.

Of course someone who wants to make it harder for women to access reproductive healthcare is not a feminist. Of course a woman who has been critical of the Affordable Care Act more generally and could join other conservative judges in voting for its repeal next month – thereby leaving millions without healthcare during a pandemic – cannot be associated with a progressive movement.

But the fact that so many people can suggest otherwise with a straight face can’t simply be blamed on the Republicans who are lapping up their chance to use the “gender card”. This is the logical conclusion of a much broader dilution of the meaning of feminism in the mainstream, and liberal feminists who have failed to challenge that shift have a lot to answer for.

Framing feminism in terms of individual empowerment, as opposed to a political movement for a collective goal, is very much on-trend. #SupportWomen

Not only has this turn to the superficial distracted from the deeper conversations about what needs to change for women at a structural level, it has also allowed gender to be used by some as a shield against genuine feminist critique. If a woman choosing to do something is, by virtue, feminist, then women’s role in upholding systemic inequalities becomes beyond reproach.

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At least the conservatives who are taking advantage of that now are fully aware that they’re using this as a cynical ploy – they want Barrett for her politics and the only benefit her being a woman brings is that they get to pretend like that matters to them. That’s one step ahead of the self-styled progressives who’ve watched a word slip-slide into meaninglessness while continuing to feel good about themselves for using inspiring hashtags.

American feminist activist and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki summed this up well on Wednesday, tweeting: “It’d be a lot harder for conservatives to claim feminism if mainstream feminism supported policies that actually helped all women.

“Universal health care, tuition-free college, guaranteed housing, universal basic income – at the bare minimum would do so much. Imagine not screaming at people you ignore to VOTE every four years and listening to and organising with women and trans folk instead?”

It might be galling to see the reactionary right acting like they care about gender representation all of a sudden, but if feminism has to mean something, maybe those who assume it belongs to them need to take some more responsibility for the fact that so many people have no idea what that meaning is.

The fact that a near-fictional representation of “ACB” and attendant merchandise has already emerged around a woman most of us knew next to nothing about a matter of weeks ago is also a symptom of the times.

For those on the centre and left, memeifying public figures – a la RBG, Nancy Pelosi and even Hillary Clinton – is nothing new. Interestingly, it is most often women who seem to get this treatment, for better or worse, as if their entire existence can be reduced to a slogan for excitable teens (read: full-grown adults who think politicians are a substitute for a boy band) to print on a tote bag.

ON our side of the Atlantic we witnessed a similar trend with Lady Hale’s spider brooch. Then there was that period of about five minutes when Jo Swinson’s reclamation of the label “girly swot” seemed to be working well for her.

Her own campaign even started the hashtag #DebateHer to goad her opponents, because centring a campaign message entirely around someone’s pronouns worked so well for Clinton. At this point I’m just surprised that Kamala Harris’s face hasn’t been emblazoned on the side of a bus alongside the words “#VaginasFTW”.

The problem is that much of this surface-level celebration of high-profile women tends to eschew real scrutiny or even acknowledgement of personal and political complexity. This is not to say that all celebration or expressions of positivity must henceforth be cancelled (though it’s certainly worth considering). But if we want to be surprised when people talk about an anti-feminist federal judge like she’s the new member of the Spice Girls and the saviour of all women, maybe we should be looking harder at ourselves and how we’ve let things get to this point.

There is nothing original about seeing women played for fools as a political, economic and social system designed to hold them down sells the promise of their equality back to them like a shiny new thing.

Amy Coney Barrett, whether through her own choice or not, has been packaged up and stuck on the shelves as the latest must-have product for women who are starving for representation in a male-dominated world.

We might not like it, but we can’t pretend we didn’t see it coming.