“Conservative Feminism” isn’t a thing

Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the current President, seems to be trying to make “conservative feminism” a thing. It’s not.

Yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Kellyanne Conway was asked about “conservative feminism” and the role of women in the Republican party. In response, Conway said:

“It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense — because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly seems to be very pro-abortion. I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. There’s an individual feminism, if you will. You make your own choices. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. And to me, that’s what conservative feminism is all about.”

If she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, that’s cool. Given that she clearly does not understand what feminism is about, I’d prefer that she didn’t call herself a feminist. What’s not cool is her misrepresentation of feminists, and her misinformed, right-wing conservative appropriation of feminism.

“Anti-male”

Ah, “Feminists hate men”, that old chestnut. People have been hurling that accusation at feminists (in the U.S., anyway) since the suffrage movement. The anti-suffrage movement painted suffragettes as ugly, man-hating women who wanted to dominate and humiliate men. If you take a look at some of the anti-suffragette propaganda from the early 1900’s, the irony is breathtaking- many of the posters portray men doing domestic labor and not being permitted to vote by their suffragette wives.

Feminism is not anti-male. Feminism is anti-patriarchy. Feminism is not about hating men. Most feminists do not hate men. As the folks at Merriam-Webster noted in a most excellent clap back via twitter, feminism is defined as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. Personally, I think feminism should be defined as the belief in gender equality, and in a way that is non-binary and inclusive of transgender, gender nonconforming, and gender fluid folks. But the point of the tweet is that feminism is not “anti-male”.

Yet, the belief that feminism is “anti-male” persists, particularly among conservatives. Well-known conservative Megyn Kelly has publicly argued in defense of maternity leave, but says in her autobiography that she does not consider herself a feminist because her daughter’s empowerment shouldn’t come “at the expense of my sons”. Yeah. She said that. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon sentiment.

“Pro-abortion”

It is true that the majority of feminists are pro-choice. But Conway’s choice of words was very deliberate. Not only did she make a point of describing what she called “classic feminism” as anti-male, she also described it as “pro-abortion” and not “pro-choice”. This phrasing was a deliberate, political choice on Conway’s part, and is a common misdirection used by the anti-choice crowd.

While there are feminists who would describe themselves as pro-abortion, it is not because they advocate abortion over birth (which, for whatever reason seems to be how most anti-choice folks interpret it, and certainly how Conway intended it to come across in her response). Rather, these folks identify as pro-abortion because they think that family planning, including access to abortion care, is central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, among other reasons.

However, these folks are also pro-choice. Pro-choice includes people who may personally not choose abortion for themselves, but believe that women have a right to safe, legal, abortion care. Pro-choice, as defined by NARAL Pro Choice America, also means working to reduce the need for abortion (by providing access to birth control) and supporting women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. But I guess Conway felt describing feminism as “pro-abortion” would go over better with the crowd at CAPA.

“Individual” or “Choice-based” Feminism

Choice makes sense when it comes to access to abortion care. Women should be able to make informed decisions about their reproductive health, and have access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion.

Reframing feminism as an issue of female empowerment and individual “choice”, however, does not make sense. The notion that the need for gender equality is a thing of the past and feminism is all about choices is absurd. This sort of “feminism” does little to change the status quo of gender inequality. In fact, it basically denies that gender inequality still exists.

The idea that there can be an “individual feminism” where you “make your own choices”, as Conway described is flawed, because it assumes that women’s choices are no longer constrained by gender inequality. Sure, nowadays women can “choose” to work or stay home if they have children (if they have the means to do so)- but how much of a choice is it when child-rearing is still considered to be primarily a woman’s responsibility, and the only maternity leave guaranteed by federal law in the U.S. is unpaid (and it only applies to certain employees at certain companies)? Not to mention the discrimination mothers experience in the workplace (the “mommy tax”), while many men benefit from the “daddy bonus” ?

By obscuring women’s continued subordinate status in society, the notion that feminism is all about one’s personal choices conveniently overlooks the conditions that constrain women’s choices (and the intersection of other identities like race or sexuality that constrain them further). Not happy about getting paid less than a male coworker with less experience? Don’t blame sexism and the pay gap. You should have made a better choice, worked harder, worked somewhere else, or… something. Don’t play the victim, dear. Haven’t you heard? Women’s liberation is all about choices.

It is no surprise that Conway would define “conservative feminism” as being about individual choice and not being a “victim” to one’s circumstances. Conservative ideology and political rhetoric often emphasizes a sort of “meritocratic individualism” while ignoring structural inequalities in our society. It also echoes the mythical American narrative of “bootstrapping”-that with hard work and personal responsibility, anyone can succeed.

The thing is though- structural inequalities do exist in our society. And the goal of contemporary women’s movements is to address these political, economic, and social inequalities. It is not meant to be “one size fits all” representation of all women’s opinions. Yet women like Conway misunderstand feminism, and reject it because they feel it doesn’t represent them. So they try to appropriate feminism by adding “conservative” in front of it and claiming it as their own. But a movement that only represents the interests of certain women, proposes individual solutions to structural inequality, and supports politician seeking to restrict the reproductive rights of other women- that ain’t feminism.