Samantha Leach | August 4, 2017
Recently I spent two days at the hub of conservatism in Washington, D.C. Nope, not the White House, but the Heritage Foundation for the Network of Enlightened Women’s National Conference—also known as NeW—where a group of college-aged conservative females gathered to discuss and learn about policy and leadership. And yes, Kellyanne Conway was there.
As a 24-year-old liberal woman who cried watching Hillary Clinton lose the election live at New York’s Javits Center, this wasn’t a room I ever thought I’d find myself in, and my preconceived notions ran rampant—all I could think was that I didn’t have the right clothes, let alone the bandwidth for the mental gymnastics it would take to talk to women about Donald Trump without combusting.
On the day of the conference, swathed in a pastel tweed blazer and kitten heels, I found myself in a room of 100-plus excited, chatty, diverse women. I saw girls with nose rings, in large hipster glasses, with dreadlocks. Few to none were wearing pearls.
The morning kicked off with NeW’s President and founder Karin Agness Lips, who congratulated everyone for their commitment to politics, assuring the crowd that they were the future of their party. Then, she asked the room a question: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” A palpable silence took over, as Agness Lips dove right into criticism of contemporary feminism, arguing that it’s become an embodiment of the liberal agenda, as opposed to the pursuit of female equality.
I looked back out at the same group of girls who had traveled from across the country to attend this very conference—all because they believed they deserved a seat at the table to discuss politics—and they were all nodding their head in agreement. It became clear that while garden-variety girl power was alive and well here, feminist is predictably a dirty word.
That became extra-clear when conservative pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson took the stage to share findings from her book The Selfie Vote, in which she explores ways cultural trends are influencing how the millennial generation is voting. She shared one statistic that left me shook: Only 19% of Republican women think that the feminist movement represents their values (Echelon Insights, Kristen Soltis Anderson).
On a break from the presentations, over my first ever Chick-fil-A lunch, I started asking the young women about their problems with modern feminism. There was some initial pussy-hat bashing and Lena Dunham dragging, but by the end of lunch I found myself engaged in complex conversations about their hopes for female empowerment within the conservative party.
“I want equality of opportunity, and they want equality of outcome,” said Emily Hall, the president of her NeW chapter at Harvard, when I called her a week later, curious to hear more about her take on the problem conservative women have with modern feminism. The “they” she’s referring to, in case you haven’t caught on, are liberal women.
Hall’s point is the backbone of what Agness Lips calls “opportunity feminism,” which touts the belief that as long as women have the ability to enter fields like STEM, it doesn’t matter how many actually do.
Another fundamental problem NeW attendees expressed with the feminist movement is its focus on women’s reproductive rights, particularly—of course—abortion.
Jessica Martinez, the founder of her NeW chapter at UNC Charlotte, told me, “I have a strong Christian faith. I understand women want the right to do whatever they want with their body, but if it’s at the cost of another’s life, even though they don’t consider it a life—if it has a heartbeat—then I [want abortion] to be illegal.” Other women admitted the left’s laser-focus on Planned Parenthood was the primary reason they didn’t participate in January’s Women’s March.
Outside divisive issues like abortion, another common complaint women at the conference shared with me was what they perceive to be the left’s “victimhood” culture. “Feminism is focusing on an intersectionality that seems to be a competition to see who’s the biggest victim,” Hall said. “I think feminism should focus on empowering women, not just focusing on the ways that they’ve been disadvantaged.”
For me, this sentiment cut to the heart of what I struggled with throughout the conference: While each panel, speech, and debate focused on rousing women to chase their goals, there wasn’t any conversation about or acknowledgement of the ways it’s hard to do that—whether you’re running for office or not. In an effort to empower, I found the harsh realities of being a woman largely ignored.
And there are harsh realities: We all know women are often paid less than menin general, but a recent Harvard study shows that the longer a woman works, the more the wage gap increases, going up to 55 percent by the time workers are in their forties. And this persists in all industries—from Hollywood where Emma Stone’s male co-stars have taken salary cuts so she can receive equal pay—to staff positions in Trump’s White House. And let’s not forget that cyberbullying rates against women are higher than ever, forcing females like Congresswoman Katherine Clark to speak out about online abuse, and Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski to defend herself against Donald Trump’s sexist Twitter attacks.
These women aren’t whining liberal snowflakes for speaking candidly about the cultural obstacles women face. I see them as strong, honest blueprints for a younger generation.
This made me wonder why the NeW women were so hesitant to talk about the ways women have, historically, been dealt a tougher hand. Maybe they really weren’t experiencing any form of sexism themselves? Perhaps the seemingly daily barrage of stats wasn’t on their radar? But after asking some questions, there was one conversation that finally made me understand the reluctance.
On a break between panels, I had a chance to talk with Kristen Soltis Anderson about how she’d seen Wonder Woman the previous weekend. She said that watching a female hero kick ass on screen brought her to tears. But after the movie, the positive feelings quickly dissolved. Between all the conservative versus liberal fights in the media over the women’s-only screenings of the film, and liberal women morphing the superhero into a symbol of patriarchy smashing, she felt that as a conservative, the movie wasn’t hers to love. Hall agreed.
“It’s very upsetting and disheartening to feel like any pro-woman entity—a movie, an event, or anything else—immediately becomes owned by the left, because I think being pro-woman shouldn’t be, and isn’t, a partisan issue,” Hall told me. “It may be natural for politics to shape a person’s views on health care or trade, but the empowerment of women shouldn’t come from political ideology. That’s what makes it incredibly frustrating that something like Wonder Woman, which could just be a fun way for all of us to celebrate how awesome women are, is immediately caught up in politics.”
This lines up with how the women at the conference told me they felt about the Women’s March, and mainstream feminism in general—that it’s been so politicized and embraced as a symbol of the left that even standing behind an undeniably feminist summer blockbuster is a betrayal of their party.
Yet even though these women don’t identify with feminism as I define it, I came to find that they can still be—for lack of a better phrase—woke as hell. For example, Martinez told me about how, as a conservative Hispanic woman, she’s fighting for Republicans to embrace more diversity in the party. Another attendee, Amy Dunham, a rising senior at the University of Alabama, proudly told me that she’s studying engineering and plans to work in STEM. In one of the most emotional moments of the conference, a sexual assault survivor and advocate stood up and questioned whether she could defend Trump after the comments he’s made towards women. Later I saw many of the attendees thank her, and others tell her about their own work in sexual assault awareness community.
Now that I had a better understanding of the problems millennial conservative women have with feminism, I still wanted to know what their ideal movement would look like, and how it would better serve women. When I asked Hall how she’d envision it, she told me this: “[It would] include all women and [our] male allies as well, because I think that the vast majority of people, women and men, absolutely support political and otherwise equality of women. I think we should capitalize on the support of [the] many people [who] want women to be equal. I think it would be important to make that feminism into a network of women who are empowering women to run for office. Something that crosses ideological lines.”
On the train back to New York, I started thinking about this group of women that I’d known nothing about and, in some ways, judged unfairly. There are definitely some issues—abortion in particular—that we’re never going to see eye-to-eye on, but I gained a deeper sympathy for how isolated from other women they sometimes feel and how they’re without established female icons in their party. And yet they do persist as vocal champions of their beliefs.
I started thinking about Hall’s ideal definition of feminism, and how she believes it should be a network of women supporting each other to run for office. Before the conference, I never really thought about wanting more Republican women in positions of power; I only focused on what was happening on the left. Now having met these women, and witnessing how tough-as-nails they are, I’ve never been more confident that the future of the Republican party is female—and in that way, they have my support.