The Plight of Conservative Feminists, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Clare catches up with Carly Fiorina today after writing a piece in February about her exit from the presidential race and her role in carrying the banner of conservative feminism. Clare’s new piece focuses on the conundrum that many Republican women face in the general election: Vote for Trump, who has a long record of sexist statements and behavior, or vote for Clinton, who supports a progressive worldview and set of policies they disagree with—and who, they believe, tries to co-opt feminism only for the political left. Here’s Clare:

The crux of [Fiorina’s] argument is that Clinton deploys feminism as a political weapon in a way that hurts women. “Feminism is no longer a term that’s used to enable or empower women,” Fiorina said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. “It turns out to be in so many people’s eyes, in Hillary Clinton’s eyes, kind of a way to bludgeon people into a left-wing litany of causes.” In Fiorina’s telling, liberal feminism has devolved into a noxious political correctness. It is an ideology rooted in partisanship that liberals wield to discredit anyone who disagrees with their agenda—an identity politics that does more to divide than unite.

A reader dissents (followed by a few counterpoints):

There is no such thing as a conservative feminist. If you’re a feminist, it means you want women to have the same rights and opportunities that men do. But if you’re a conservative, it means you want to want men to have all the advantages. Why do conservatives oppose abortion rights, birth control, and equal pay laws? Because they want to exert control over women.

Conservatives should really be called regressives. They want to take us back to the 1950s where women stayed home, cooked and cleaned, and only had sex to produce babies. When Trump talked about punishing women for having abortions, conservatives were upset because he said out loud what many of them say in private. How can you want to make abortion illegal, but not want to punish women who commit what you call murder? Trump has done a great service: On so many issues, he’s exposed the Republican party for what it really is.

Now having said that, Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly a great role model for women either. What does it say about America that of all the female governors, senators, etc. who would make good Presidential candidates, we nominate the one who was married to a former President? I guess the message to little girls is “you too can grow up to be President. Just make sure your husband was one first.”

Carly Fiorina was a lousy CEO, but at least she rose to that position on her own. She didn’t need her husband’s name or connections to get there. Hillary is obviously intelligent and hard-working, so there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t have been successful without Bill. But when you stay in what looks like a political marriage in order to further your own career, is that really a victory for feminism?

That reader claims that “there is no such thing as a conservative feminist,” but a previous reader contributor—a “proud feminist and a proud conservative”—would fiercely disagree. And so does this liberal feminist reader, Jennifer, quoting the reader above:

There is no such thing as a conservative feminist. If you’re a feminist, it means you want women to have the same rights and opportunities that men do. But if you’re a conservative, it means you want to want men to have all the advantages. Why do conservatives oppose abortion rights, birth control, and equal pay laws?

This is simply not true, and I say this as a female humanist liberal. Most conservatives support at least early abortion, most forms of birth control [Fiorina even wants the pill over the counter], and equal pay. (Although the equal pay thing isn’t really a thing when you break down hours worked and education, so there’s no need for laws to address it.) A sizable minority of Democrats also are against birth control and abortion, notably Hispanic Catholics. The majority of American Muslims are against all three and vote predominantly Democrat.

This black-and-white mentality is part of the problem we’re facing as a country.

Jennifer’s claim that “most conservatives support at least early abortion” seems a little dubious. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that only 31 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, as well as 50 percent of Independents—many of whom are conservative. But support for abortion among conservatives and Republicans certainly goes up when it comes to rape or incest; 75 percent of Americans overall support those exceptions. (I had difficulty finding abortion polling specifically for “Republican women,” so if you happen to know of any good data, please let me know.)

Regardless, Jennifer’s broader point remains: Abortion is less of a partisan divide and less of a male-female divide that many in the media suggest. In a Big Think piece titled “Abortion Is a War Among Women, Not Against Them,” Orion Jones absorbs data from the General Social Survey and finds “surprising statistics” that “reveal the importance of penetrating media-driven narratives about divisive social issues”:

Approximately a quarter of women who self-identify as “extremely liberal” did not accept unequivocal abortion rights. And about eighteen percent of those who self-identify as “extremely conservative” did.

For more on the intra-gender divide on abortion, I came across a piece in our archives from the September 1996 issue of The Atlantic titled “In the Land of Conservative Women,” by Elinor Burkett. Money quote:

The generation gap seems to be widest on abortion, which older Republican women support to a greater extent than do the young. Many IWF [Independent Women’s Forum] members, whose view of the abortion debate was shaped by the debate over a woman’s right to control her own body, are dismayed by what they perceive as an absence of any sense among younger conservatives of what it meant to be a woman in America prior to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion. For them—as for many older women, whether conservative or liberal—the concept that young college-educated women could be anti-choice is so implausible that they tend to assume the younger women will grow out of that opinion as life circumstances teach them about the moral complexities of women’s lives. Others regard the anti-abortion rhetoric as the political posturing of the young.

But women like Kellyanne Fitzpatrick resolutely beg to differ. For them, the central issue is not privacy—a woman’s right to control her own body—but rather the reality of visibly moving fetuses that they believe to be fully human. “You can’t appeal to us through our wombs,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’re pro-life. The fetus beat us. We grew up with sonograms. We know life when we see it.”

For these young conservative women, abortion is not even a women’s issue. Indeed, they dismiss the very concept of “women's issues” as a vestige of some paleolithic reality. “I agree with the original idea of feminism, with equal opportunity,” [April Lassiter, a policy adviser to Tom Delay,] says, “but it went too far. There is no such thing as ‘women's issues.’ Men worry about their families and kids, and women worry about the economy and national defense.”

In fact, although Lassiter and her friends support the Independent Women’s Forum, some of them don’t quite understand why they need a women's group at all. “I don’t like any word that defines me foremost as a woman,” Lassiter says. “I’m a conservative who happens to be female.”