Feminist icon Betty Friedan said, “Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” The war today is among women not against them. This is clear in the reaction to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. On September 25th, 2020, The Nation labeled Barrett an extremist who ignored “the moral and ethical underpinnings of her faith when they conflict with the cruel requirements of conservative dogma.” A month later, minutes after her Senate confirmation, the National Organization of Women published a statement claiming Barrett as “groomed to overturn many of the important equality gains of the last 60 years”- namely the Affordable Care Act, abortion funding, LGBTQIA+ rights, and environmental protections. NOW warned, “We know what’s at stake — everything.”
Anti-Barrett media oozes vitriol. Denounced as “one weird woman with weird ideas and weird religion,” Barrett’s Catholicism and conservatism are choices that remove her from a seat at the feminist table. For a woman who embodies feminist achievement- mother of seven, legal scholar and newly minted Supreme Court justice- the great question is why?
The vicious attacks reveal deep fissures among women about what is and is not feminist. Somewhere along the way in women’s push for equality, feminism “mutated into a forceful enumeration of partisan positions that one must adhere to as a verified @feminist” and rather than living up to the feminist goal of inclusivity and equity, it morphed into an exclusive club. One argument is that liberal progressive feminists (and yes, this is a legit label) have co-opted the meaning of feminism and now dictate the tenets of what is normative feminism. Women who disagree with these core principles are disqualified, often viciously, as in the case of Barrett. Feminism is not a monolith. If feminism in its simplest form is advocacy for women’s rights on the basis of equality, then why is conservative feminism so polarizing?
A recent journalist framed the answer clearly:
“Conservative feminism” is not only a nonsensical term, but an oxymoron. Feminism at its core is about dismantling long-standing patriarchal power structures and protecting women’s freedom in the pursuit of gender equality. This is not what Barrett’s judicial history reflects…she does not seem to believe in women’s freedom to make their own choices about their bodies.
Body politics are the dividing line in the contest between who’s in and who’s out of the feminist collective. French scholar Michel Foucault captured the centrality of the body in the politics of oppression when claiming it as an “object and target of power, a field on which the hierarchies of power are displayed and inscribed.” Only in the past fifty years, after decades of activism, have women in the United States gained political and social equality and control over discourse about the female body. Among the greatest achievement of the women’s movement was the power of choice. But choice- about work, family, education, politics and the body- is a contested idea, especially when choice is used to choose poorly. Who determines what is good and bad choice is key to explaining why some women are hailed as icons of female empowerment and others dismissed. Conservative feminism is relegated to the latter category because of its rejection of sexual politics.
What is conservative feminism? It is a form of feminism that builds on rather than repudiates “the ideals and institutions of Western culture” in pursuit of justice. It is not anti-male, anti-family or subordinate to patriarchy, but it does seek equality while recognizing the innate differences between men and women, child bearing chief among these. In her seminal essay “The New Conservative Feminism,” Judith Stacey saw conservative feminism as a significant threat to the women’s movement because it shared common roots with radical feminist activism in the pursuit of economic, political and legal equality. Stacey viewed it as a “reactionary response to a broad social crisis in family and personal life” and the “unresolved tensions between androgyny and celebrating traditional female and maternal values.” Conservative feminism revealed the weaknesses of the women’s movement and in turn offered what today is often referred to as difference feminism.
A more modern interpretation from historian Marjorie Spruill argues that rather than a branch from a common root, what is called conservative feminism today was actually a concurrent movement rooted in the values of the religious right and conservatism and manifest in the politics of women like Phyllis Schlafly. This group aggressively opposed the National Plan of Action crafted for the IWY 1977 Houston Conference that included reforms in divorce and rape laws, tax-funded abortion, access to childcare, end to discriminatory insurance practices and most significantly, civil rights for lesbians, a group historically labeled mentally ill for their sexual orientation. Jimmy Carter did not support the plan for fear of alienating Christians, and the opposition gained support from the Republican Party, effectively leading Reagan and later Bush to reject abortion and adopt the pro-life, pro-family values entrenched today in conservative politics.
The roots of women’s push for equality in United States history stem back to the origins of the Republic and passed through many thresholds in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries that crystallized reforms specific to women, suffrage among the most significant. When historicizing women’s rights movements, the early twentieth-century is one of these important thresholds. Between 1880 and 1920 the largest number of single, educated women in United States history chose public work over marriage and the household. As a result, the period is often referred to as the era of the single woman, a time that intersected with the rise of eugenics and mass immigration, tremendous urbanization, industrialization and tangent cultural shifts. Although the majority of these educated women- both black and white- were of a higher socio-economic class than their laboring sisters, they used clubs, church, civic groups and community organizations to agitate for reforms in education, healthcare, suffrage and prohibition. Their efforts manifest in federal policies like the 18th and 19th Amendments, compulsory education and child labor laws, and for many, support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Progressives, as they were known, looked to government to create moral reform.
The progressive feminists of the early twentieth-century planted the seeds that prefigured the expansion of the federal government and the radical changes in women’s equality under the law. The watershed moment of these efforts was the New Deal in the 1930s, and from that point to the present, government at both the state and federal level assumed control over public welfare funded by tax dollars, an issue prior to the 1930s the responsibility of charitable and faith-based groups. Reformers built the infrastructure that decades later evolved into tax funded programs like Medicaid, Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, subsidized housing, childcare, Planned Parenthood and public education by the late twentieth-century. What is significant about this early wave of women activists is the role of Christianity and the church as seedbeds of collective action and the source of the values that shaped the reform to uplift those in need.
South Carolina’s Wil Lou Gray (1883–1984) is a great example of the single, educated, reform-minded activist who worked to elevate and improve the lives of her fellow statesmen long before federal and state money funded public service. She used her church, women’s clubs, civic groups and powerful friends and family to achieve what is nothing short of a remarkable ascendance to a leadership role in South Carolina state government before women had the right to vote. She dedicated her career to the uplift of people in her state through programs she designed from within the structure of state government and then validated with social science research, using northern philanthropic and educational institutions for money and academic credibility. With a degree from Columbia University and progressive ideas about social justice and equality of opportunity, she used social science as the precedent for public policy, publishing study after study to substantiate her ideas.
She did not dismantle the structural inequalities that defined the social system that made her who she was, but she was aware of how these inequalities stagnated progress. She used her access to power to create opportunities that otherwise would not have been afforded to the disadvantaged poor of her state, and in so doing, created a special space for herself in the social fabric of a hyper gendered region. She was part of a disparate group of southern educators, intellectuals, writers and artists who challenged the grim social realities of illiteracy, poverty and racism by advocating regional progress. Her pioneering work in adult education intersected with major revolutions in transportation, consumerism, communication and public education that came to the South by World War II, and she used these developments to market her social vision to the public.
Progress is political, and the mechanics of how change happens matters. In a moment when violence, COVID-19, contests over public space and lack of dialogue about critical national issues accent every hour of every day, Gray’s work and legacy reveal the transformative power of belief in shared humanity and the transcendence of the human spirit over the barriers of isms. Her willingness to compromise on some issues but stand firm on others made her a force to be reckoned with. The conservative feminism of Gray and many women of her generation recognized that structural barriers were more complicated in the hyper gendered, heritage bound South, but she worked within regional limitations to forge change. Dismantling the racism, sexism, violence and economic stagnation of her region required political finesse, and her willingness to compromise is a lesson modern activists and politicians should note.
Feminism is a big tent that encompasses different perspectives that empower women. A recent series in The Atlantic found roughly 30% of Republican women and 50% of Independents support abortion, and in the case of rape, the number jumps to 75%. If feminism is about access and equity, then can conservative feminism have a place at the table? As women continue to push for equity in various forms, it’s a worthy consideration.
Sources: Elie Mystal, “Amy Coney Barrett is an extremist- just not the kind you think,” The Nation, 25 September 2020 at https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/amy-coney-barrett-extremist/ accessed 27 October 2020; “NOW Denounces Amy Coney Barrett’s Confirmation to SCOTUS,” NOW, 26 October 2020 at http://now.org/media-center/press-release/now-denounces-amy-coney-barretts-confirmation-to-scotus/ accessed 27 October 2020; Lizzie Bond, “The Conservative Case for Feminism,” Duke Political Review, October 2020 at http://www.dukepoliticalreview.org/the-conservative-case-for-feminism/ accessed 20 October 2020; Natalie Gontcharova, “No, There’s No Such Thing as Conservative Feminism,” Refinery29, 28 September 2020 at https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/09/10055965/amy-coney-barrett-nomination-conservative-feminism accessed 25 October 2020; Foucault, cited in M. Dinnerstein and Rose Weitz, “Jane Fonda, Barbara Bush and other aging bodies: femininity and the limitations of resistance,” in R. Weitz, The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 159; Lee Jussim, “Conservative Feminism,” Psychology Today, 19 August 2015 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201508/conservative-feminism accessed 26 October 2020; Judith Stacey, “The New Conservative Feminism,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 9 (Autumn, 1983), 574; Gillian Thomas, “‘Four Days that Changed the World’: Unintended Consequences of a Womens’ Rights Conference,” New York Times, 6 March 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/books/review/divided-we-stand-marjorie-j-spruill.html accessed 10 October 2020; Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017); Mary Macdonald Ogden, Wil Lou Gray: The Making of a Southern Progressive from New South to New Deal, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015).