I ran across this article from the Chicago Tribune, about a right-wing student group that invited anti-feminist feminist Christina Hoff Sommers to speak at the University of Chicago. The article says nothing that isn’t predictable, but I was amused by this passage, quoting campus conservative Sara Butler:
Butler was happy to provide the refreshment. She said she and conservative-minded friends have chafed at campus women’s groups that have been protesting agricultural working conditions at Taco Bell suppliers and opposing war in Iraq.
“I think the feminist movement is out of touch with average women,” she said. “The big feminist issue has been the controversy with the Augusta National Golf Club.”
So in one moment Ms. Butler slams campus feminist groups for their concern with labor issues and war in Iraq, and the next she’s complaining all feminists worry about is the Augusta National Golf Club. Truly, some people are never satisfied.
(By the way, Ms. Butler does go on to give her opinion of what a truly pressing issue for women on campus is: the “lack of any dating culture on campus.” Thank goodness feminists have right-wingers to tell us what’s really important…)
(While I’m on the subject of zany things Ms. Butler has said, let me point out this National Review article, in which Butler – I kid you not – criticizes feminists for judging people by their policies, rather than their sex: “We couldn’t understand why their bond of sisterhood didn’t extend to Priscilla Owen, but included Sen. Chuck Schumer and Ralph Neas. Perhaps the sisterhood has awarded each of these two men an honorary estrogen pack since their politics are so obviously feminine. After all, for feminists, ideology trumps biology…” Here’s a clue for Ms. Butler: Of course feminists judge people by their ideology, not their biology. To do otherwise is called “sexism,” and real feminists are against sexism.)
But the real reason I’m blogging this is the article’s comment that “Butler says she is a feminist of a different sort – a conservative feminist.”
I have trouble accepting the idea of a right-wing feminist.
1. Real feminists don’t attack feminism for a living.
Most of the examples of conservative so-called feminism I’ve come across – the IWF, Christina Hoff Sommers and ifeminism, for example – are so discouraging. It seems to me that to be a feminist, one ought be in favor of feminism. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to accept that these “right-wing feminists” – none of whom ever take the feminist side in current controversies, and all of whom make their livings doing nothing but slamming feminism – are feminists.
Of course, real feminists can – and do – criticize other feminists. When feminist Naomi Wolf released her book Fire with Fire – a book that mostly criticized feminists and dominant feminist ideology – Christina Hoff Sommers eagerly predicted Wolf’s forthcoming expulsion from the feminist fold (“Get used to this, Ms. Wolf. You’ll soon be finding out how it feels just to be called antifeminist simply because you refuse to regard men as the enemy and women as their hapless victims…. Susan Faludi will now classify you as just another backlasher”). Of course, none of this came to pass; some feminists criticized Wolf, some didn’t, and years later Wolf’s still one of the most popular feminist writers in America. So much for Ms. Sommers’ crystal ball.
The difference, of course, is that no matter how much Wolf criticizes feminists, that’s not all she does. She’s also found time, in her career, to support feminist issues now and again. But conservative feminists like Ms. Sommers have not.
But examples aside (after all, that’s just anecdotal evidence), as a matter of theory I think right-wing politics and feminism are fundamentally in conflict.
2. Real feminists don’t think a women’s only place is in the home.
As I understand it (and speaking in sweeping generalizations), there are two dominant brands of right-wingers in the US today: social conservatives and libertarians. Social conservatism is pretty obviously incompatible with feminism: social conservatives are anti-abortion, anti-lesbian, anti-women-in-the-workplace. Basically, they’re anti-women-being-anything-but-barefoot-and-pregnant. Do I even have to explain why this ain’t compatible with feminism?
Libertarianism is on the surface more compatible with feminism. Libertarians believe in equal legal rights for women, and frequently oppose laws which would have the government force childbirth on unwilling women. So why don’t I think libertarians can be feminists?
3. Real feminists are for real equality, not just legal equality
There’s more to feminism than disapproving of legal sexism and keeping abortion legal. The dictionary defines feminism as a movement for “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” But libertarians aren’t for any of that; all they favor is the legal equality of the sexes. As long as women are equal in the strict letter of the law, libertarians don’t care if women are hugely unequal in ways social, political and economic. They see no problem in a congress that is 87% male; although they perform statistical somersaults trying to deny that a wage gap exists between men and women, at a more fundamental level they don’t mind that women get paid less. Their alleged concern for equality begins and ends with legal equality. That’s fine – they can believe whatever they want – but it’s not feminism, not even by the conservative dictionary definition.
4. Real feminists don’t oppose every possible law to help women.
There’s a huge variety of feminisms out there, but there are a couple of things virtually all feminists believe. One is that feminists can, by taking collective action, change society in ways that improves the status of women-as-a-whole. Towards this end, feminists have lobbied for battered women’s shelters (and often lobbied for government funding), rape crisis lines (ditto), anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, pay equity, state-funded day care, the family leave act, a higher minimum wage, government-funded research on violence against women, and so on.
But libertarians opposes most collective action: for libertarians, everything is about the individual. Strict libertarians opposes laws against discrimination; if an individual business owner wants to discriminate against women, he should have that freedom, because after all it’s his business and his money. Similarly, pay equity, affirmative action, minimum wage, sexual harassment laws, and family leave are bad, because government shouldn’t tell business owners what to do. Rape crisis lines and battered women’s shelters should be provided by private charity and markets, not by tax dollars “taken at gunpoint.” And so on, and so on.
Of course, I’m not saying that no feminist can disagree with welfare, or affirmative action, or family leave, or whatever. Feminists disagree on things like this all the time. But can someone be against virtually every policy that might help women and still be a feminist? After all, it’s not just that libertarians want to prevent new laws to help women: libertarians also want to repeal most of the current laws that help women.
Getting rid of Social Security would hurt women more than men; getting rid of the minimum wage would hurt women more than men (because more women are minimum-wage workers); getting rid of anti-discrimination laws would hurt women more; I could go on with examples like these all day. All these policies would hurt women’s interests, and all of them are favored by libertarians. If virtually all the policies a person favors would hurt women’s interests, and drive women far away from “social, political, and economic equality” with men, doesn’t that make it a contradiction to call that person a feminist?
And, of course, feminists believe in doing everything possible – including government aid – to help improve the status of women discriminated against abroad. But try mentioning “foreign aid” to a libertarian – it’s like mentioning garlic and crosses to a vampire.
5. Real feminists want justice for all, not just justice for the well-off and white.
There’s one other reason I think it’s unlikely that any coherent philosophy could be both right-wing and feminist. Feminism’s mandate is justice, and especially justice for women. But fighting for “justice” for women isn’t meaningful if it only applies to some women. Consider the feminist principle that “all women must have the freedom to choose abortion.” If we’re serious about that principle, it’s not enough that abortion remain legal; it also has to be meaningfully available to all women. That means feminism has to concern itself at least partly with class justice – if poor women can’t afford abortions, then poor women lack the freedom to choose abortion.
Similar arguments could be made about why feminism has to not only consider gender justice, but also the places where gender justice “intersects” with racial justice, economic justice, justice for lesbians, and so on. Certainly, there are many individual right-wingers who are personally anti-racist, concerned with the plight of the poor, and so on. But it is the left which is fighting for social justice on all these fronts; and insofar as feminism has to be concerned with social justice for all women (and not just white middle-class first-world heterosexual women) to be legitimate, it’s more natural for feminism to ally with the left than with the right.
So do I think that individual conservatives who call themselves feminists are insincere? No, probably not: probably they just like the label and don’t care what it means. Still, it’s a kick in the pants, ain’t it? I don’t wander around insisting I’m a “libertarian” despite my lack of faith in pro-market ideology; i don’t call myself a “fundamentalist Christian” even though I’m a Jewish atheist. Why is it that right-wing terms are understood to have meaning, but anyone – no matter how regressive and anti-feminist their views – feels free to label herself a “feminist”?