Since yesterday, I’ve read and re-read-as almost an act of mourning-this depressing USA Today article that points out that the number of women in Congress is likely to decrease following the November elections . This despite the spate of media coverage about all the female candidates (including here, of course), despite all the rhetoric about the Year of the Conservative Woman .
Against the sobering numbers of this poll, I’ve been mulling whether feminism becomes a more or less powerful concept if its definition expands. This was the question running through my mind when I sat in on the Smart Girl Summit, a recent conservative women’s conference. These women-many of them middle-aged, middle-American mom-types with pro-life views-were shut out of the traditional version of feminism, and are aggressively setting out to reclaim the term. They’re not afraid to use the word feminist ; they just take great care to put modifiers in front of it to distinguish is from "old"-liberal-feminism. One panelist spoke at length about women doing work like teaching or mothering that’s "unpaid or underpaid, and undervalued," and added that "the new feminism affirms, admires, and lifts up that kind of sacrifice." She set that in direct opposition to "modern feminists," who are "willing to trade their maternal roles for temporary advantages in politics or business." Conservative women "are not turning feminism upside-down, they’re turning it right-side up." Another speaker, Dana Loesch, was even more explicit: "I’m all about liberating women from the bondage of carrying water for one party," and added that "liberal feminism is a marketing schtick used by older women who are irrelevant in today’s society." The white-haired woman in front of me clapped. Loesch even framed liberal women who believe in government spending as retrograde and lacking a modern woman’s independent spirit, calling Uncle Sam their "sugar daddy." And she ended with a warning, that the left has "awakened the sleeping giant that is the conservative female movement."
Fighting words, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re not entirely accurate ones. This is a movement that’s offering large numbers of women a way to ascribe a higher political meaning to their life choices, whether those are full-time work, part-time work, or staying home with the kids. Abortion wasn’t as important to these women as their shared views about the economy and the national debt. One panel at the conference offered women practical advice on how to seek office, even if they’ve not recently held a job, how to assemble a support group that includes not only friends but a husband who supports your goals and compromises in pursuit of them. The consultant who ran that panel explicitly said it was important to have female representation: She’d run for the Indiana legislature in part because no one in that chamber had "working ovaries." Another speaker ran through the laundry list of all the ways women are going to control spending and decisions in important sectors like health care in the coming years-it could have been cribbed from Hanna’s " End of Men " article. This wasn’t back-in-the-kitchen conservatism.
The goal of the whole thing was to create a solid network, a sisterhood of likeminded women that is positioned to achieve hegemony as both gender and political power balances shift. I’d call that textbook empowerment, even if I don’t agree with what they’re working toward. Liberal feminists are doing the things we believe in a great disservice if conservatives are, well, more liberal in their definition of how women can wield power-that’s one of the lessons from that USA Today article and the probable setback for female legislators. And another is that conservative women, for their part, haven’t quite yet figured out a way to get their recent embrace of "new feminism" to translate from rhetoric into solid political movement forward. One pollster told USA Today, that "It's always been tougher for women to get elected in a tough economy because voters tend to think women aren't as good on the economy. … They don't want to take risks in a bad economy, and they perceive women as being riskier." Yet a major tenet of Tea Party feminism is that women are good at managing budgets and will bring that same fiscal responsibility to office; perhaps seeing that kind of prejudice play out at the polls will be a clarifying moment for conservative feminists, in which they realize that "modern feminists" were actually fighting against real barriers, and they don’t get a free hurdle over them simply by declaring that they aren’t precisely the same breed.