Conservatives Are Wrong to Dismiss Feminism

Today’s feminists have some valid concerns, and those on the right would benefit from listening.

Last week, Representative Martha McSally (R., Ariz.) revealed that she had been sexually abused in high school by a coach. Her #MeToo story is a reminder that conservatism cannot afford to dismiss the modern feminist movement.

In the six months since the #MeToo movement began, conservatives have, at times rightly, questioned or criticized some aspects of it. But too often they have wrongly downplayed, ignored, or completely dismissed the impetus of the movement. This Republican politician’s story, and the many similar stories shared in recent months, show how typical these incidents and experiences are, and they illustrate how the feminist movement shines a spotlight on the unique obstacles women face. Those on the right should not ignore this movement or its concerns; there is a greater need for feminism in the United States than conservatives sometimes believe.

Unfortunately, the word “feminist” is often treated as though it were synonymous with “liberal,” and so it’s become a dirty word to many of us on the right. It shouldn’t be.

The concept of feminism should be nonpartisan; after all, the basic definition of feminism is the idea that there should be social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, and that it is important to defend women’s rights and equality. This definition of feminism is, admittedly, different from the one promoted by some of today’s most prominent and vocal feminists.

Though many aspects of third-wave feminism include laudatory goals, such as inclusivity and intersectionality, modern feminism often gives conservatives valid reasons to object to it. Third-wave feminists have promoted the movement as one attempting to include everyone, while simultaneously forcefully and harshly rejecting anyone whose views deviate even slightly from their preferred agenda. For example, many feminists today consider abortion-on-demand to be a fundamental human right and exclude pro-life women, criticizing them as traitors to their sex. Some feminists rush to ruin lives, careers, and reputations when someone misidentifies a person’s gender, and others seem more intent on shouting people down than promoting discussion and debate.

In short, many of those invested in third-wave feminism often choose to create hostile environments in the name of tolerance and browbeat people into agreement with their agenda rather than start and encourage productive discussions. But we cannot allow these individuals — who claim that their definition of feminism and their agendas are the only correct worldview — to prevent us from striving for full equality for women.

Some conservatives argue that feminism is no longer necessary because women already have equal rights. It’s true that, thanks to the persistent work of past feminists, women today have attained equal political rights and participate more fully in the American economy. We were granted the right to vote in 1920, not even 100 years ago. We entered the workforce just within the last century. We first coined the term “sexual harassment” and insisted it was unacceptable in the 1970s, fewer than 50 years ago.

Is it truly possible to counteract all the stereotypes, gender assumptions, and common viewpoints and attitudes about women in such little time? We still hear comments today about women being too emotional, too hysterical, too shrill, too bossy, too unlikeable, too ambitious, too independent.

Many on the right also criticize modern feminism for focusing more on the victimization of women, than on their empowerment — a valid criticism. But it is necessary to recognize and understand that there are historical disadvantages for women, particularly for women of color or those in poverty, that cannot be so easily overcome in under a century.

It’s true that American women are better off, significantly so in many cases, than women in many other countries, but it is also glaringly evident that even in the United States, there are obstacles and challenges that women face that men do not, which impede full social, political, and economic equality, including sexual harassment and violence against women; everyday or benevolent sexism; or workplace inequality, such as when identical résumés with male names receive more offers than those with female names, when credit is given to men instead of women in mixed-sex professional groups, and when women receive less acknowledgment than men do for offering ideas or identifying issues.

Unfortunately, these problems often get lost amid partisan squabbles, while the most extreme parts of modern feminism are mocked — such as prominent feminists who idealize a world without men, compare the United States (with its functioning government and elections) to The Handmaid’s Tale, and treat small but valid annoyances such as “manspreading” as an egregious affront. But modern feminists do raise some valid concerns, and conservatives should pay attention, if not to improve the plight of women, then for their own political benefit. Specifically, modern feminism works to counteract rape culture as well as double standards and inequality in the workplace.

“Rape culture” is, admittedly, a loaded term, as it appears to argue that society openly celebrates rape and the mistreatment of women — an idea that sounds preposterous on its face. But “rape culture” doesn’t mean that every man is a rapist or that there are no good people willing to stop the mistreatment of women. It simply refers to the allowances granted to abusers and the way society often tolerates, minimizes, and trivializes sexual mistreatment.

It is difficult to argue that such a culture doesn’t exist when powerful men get away with sexual abuse in the workplace and when those around such predators enable, cover up, or otherwise assist them, while victims get blacklisted or fired. On many campuses, college administrations have shown that athletic programs take precedence over seeking justice for women, and athletes receive harsher punishments for using drugs than for assaulting women. Thousands of rape kits, containing physical evidence collected from victims, remain untested across the country, including 11,341 untested kits discovered in one county alone.

Compare the difference in treatment of former Trump surrogate A. J. Delgado to that of political strategist and former Trump spokesman Jason Miller — the man who cheated on his pregnant wife to have an affair with her.

Some of the people responsible for enforcing the law have used a rape victim’s sexual history to decide the rapist’s sentence, said a 14-year-old victim was “as much in control” as her 49-year-old rapist, and given a rapist joint custody of a baby conceived by rape. A juror in the Bill Cosby case implied that a victim bore blame for allegedly being drugged and sexually assaulted because “she went up to his house in a bare midriff,” as if the way women dress affects whether or not they deserve to be violated. Administrators at Michigan State University ignored numerous complaints about Dr. Larry Nassar, and not only let him continue to treat young Olympic gymnasts in their bedrooms, behind closed doors, but required that the young women do as the doctor said or risk losing their chance at athletic success . . . and the list goes on.

Some conservatives argue that the falls from grace of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Bill O’Reilly are evidence that the notion of rape culture is a myth because those predators were punished after their crimes came to light. But that ignores how others knew of the abuse at the time and let it continue for years, if not decades. Even after losing their careers, these men still have defenders and supporters.

Many in the conservative movement are too quick to insist that rape culture does not exist and that statistics regarding the prevalence of sexual assault are overblown, but the events of 2017 and the thousands of #MeToo stories women have told should cause us at least to question those conclusions.

Similarly, double standards for men and women exist, too, and the way to resolve them is first to acknowledge their existence. Compare the difference in treatment of Harvard Law School graduate and former Trump surrogate A. J. Delgado to that of political strategist and former Trump spokesman Jason Miller — the man who cheated on his pregnant wife to have an affair with her. Miller still appears on cable news and informally advises the White House, while Delgado now lives with her mother in Miami and no longer appears on cable news, in news publications, or within the Trump inner circle.

Why, in this situation and the many others like it, is the woman being driven from her career to deal with the fallout while the man continues to advance his own?

Delgado’s background and résumé have not changed since she became a mother to Miller’s child, so there is no reason why she would suddenly be unqualified to continue her prior work. It’s possible that people have personal, not professional, issues with her now — except Miller shares those personal issues, and yet he has not experienced the same consequences for their affair. It’s possible that it was  Delgado’s choice to remove herself from a profitable career in politics — except she has tweeted about selling her car for funds, has complained about not being able to afford expensive litigation, and has lamented the recent loss of her job with Trump super PAC America First, even as an individual found to have made “racist, sexist, anti-Muslim and anti-gay remarks on the radio” continues to be employed by the organization. Meanwhile, Miller, who reportedly suggested that Delgado obtain an abortion, still has considerable political power among Republicans.

At least one other conservative woman, Skyler Mann at Ricochet, believes that the disparity in the treatment of Delgado and Miller is based on their sex: “The repercussions to Delgado’s political career suggest something deeper than all that,” Mann wrote. “This episode highlights something inherently rotten in our culture that continues to blame women solely for sexual indiscretions.”

Sometimes the types of obstacles women face aren’t so obvious.

Studies do show that women who negotiate are viewed more negatively than men who negotiate. It’s not victimhood to acknowledge that this obstacle, and many more, exist in the workplace.

Take politics. Of the 100 senators in Congress, there are 23 women; of the 435 representatives, there are 83 women. When the disparity between women and men in Congress is pointed out, conservatives often downplay it. But a 2008 report from the Brookings Institution found that women are “less likely than men to be recruited for office” and “are less likely than men to think they are ‘qualified’ to run for office.” We should ask why.

Sex is not a predictor of performance, and it is not more important than whether a person is qualified for a job. But conservatives should look at this research and ask a few questions: Why are men more confident in running for office? Are there specific things holding women back? Can we do something to alleviate those issues? Shouldn’t we strive to eliminate factors that hold women back from pursuing their passions and achieving their potential? Shouldn’t we want to do so? Shouldn’t we be concerned that women feel held back?

When equal pay is discussed, conservatives rightly point out that wages differ as the result of many factors, including experience and career choice. The modern feminist movement is wrong to advocate more legislation to address disparities in pay. But we shouldn’t leave the discussion at that. Studies do show that women who negotiate are viewed more negatively than men who negotiate. These four studies found that women were penalized for negotiating more than men were. It’s not victimhood to acknowledge that this obstacle, and many more, exist in the workplace.

Some conservatives argue that modern feminism wades into misandry and therefore discredits itself. It is certainly ridiculous for feminists to argue that all men are bad, and anyone who does so poisons the entire feminist movement. But it is understandable that some women are truly angry about experiences they’ve had. They are angry that they have been brushed off about sexual assault. They are angry they have been called hysterical for articulating concerns about gender inequality.

Experiences such as these are real, and it is not overreacting or melodramatic to acknowledge that. This means not that women should see themselves as victims or as weak but rather that conservatives should be aware of the harsh realities facing women so that we can more effectively counteract and, if possible, eliminate some of them.

It is more productive to take the time to listen and consider the issues being presented than to immediately dismiss, ignore, mock, or trivialize such concerns. The conservative movement has long debated the unintended consequences of a variety of public policies; why not those related to women’s issues? Often, people don’t consider or realize the way in which seemingly minor actions or unconscious bias can affect a woman’s career or choices or perpetuate outdated gender expectations.

Out of all the people to take the stage during the Conservative Political Action Conference, only one person used the spotlight to denounce the treatment of women by President Donald Trump and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

We don’t have to renounce the term “feminism” and cede the movement to the Left. Conservatism needs feminism, because women are leaving the Republican party, an alarming phenomenon that is being largely ignored. Only 23 percent of Millennial women identify as Republicans — down from 36 percent in 2002.

Conservatism needs feminism because, when women in Hollywood formed an anti-harassment initiative, there was more focus on mocking women for wearing black dresses to awards shows than on highlighting the initiative’s impressive legal-defense fund for victims of sexual harassment.

Conservatism needs feminism because, during the debate regarding criminal punishment for women who have abortions, there was no national recognition of the responsibility of the men who impregnate them. It takes two to make a baby, and it’s no secret that many men have pressured women into getting abortions and paid for those procedures. In such cases, wouldn’t those fathers deserve to be legally penalized as well? It’s no secret that many men have threatened not to be involved in a child’s life and refused to provide child support. Are they not just as responsible for their child’s welfare? From the party of personal responsibility, where is the demand to also hold the men accountable?

Conservatism needs feminism because, out of all the people to take the stage during the Conservative Political Action Conference, only one person used the spotlight to denounce the treatment of women by President Donald Trump and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore (the former having crudely admitted on tape to grabbing women by the genitals, the latter having been credibly accused of preying on teenage women).

Conservatism needs feminism because that speaker at CPAC was booed and escorted out by security for her own safety — because of the actions of people on the right, who claim that only the Left shouts or shuts down opposing viewpoints.

Why did no other speaker deem it as important to talk about the mistreatment of women by Republicans as it is to talk about the failures of the Left? Why did attendees think that speaker deserved to be booed? Why isn’t there more concern on the right about the fact that some young conservatives appear to believe that winning political victories is more important than treating women with respect?

These are all legitimate concerns.

Feminism can strengthen conservatism, just as conservatism can strengthen feminism by pointing out inconsistencies in the feminist movement, such as how some self-proclaimed feminists criticize a conservative woman’s physical appearance or sexual history instead of her ideas, or how the Women’s March continues to overlook anti-Semitism.

Despite such flaws in the feminist movement, though, we should not view feminism as unnecessary or argue that it should not exist. Instead, we should admit that it seeks to address real problems. We should criticize modern feminism where its diagnoses or solutions are wrong, but we have to engage the substantive issues it raises.

I proudly identify as conservative and voted Republican my entire life until 2016. But the Republican party is driving women away. Something needs to change.


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