For decades, the label feminist has been the exclusive property of women on the political left, with victimhood and abortion rights as feminism’s primary tenets, and the promulgation of grievances against the patriarchy its modus operandi. This election cycle a large cadre of traditional women have entered the the political arena and are challenging the sisterhood of bra-burners on their own turf, bringing what Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, calls “authentic feminism” to the national stage.
As many commentators have noted, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the Republican woman. According to Center for American Women and Politics, 14 Republican women have thrown their girdles into the ring for the U.S. Senate and 94 for the House of Representatives. According to CAWP director Debbie Walsh, 60 of the 106 females who are challenging House incumbents are Republicans.
With all these changes occurring on the national stage, behind the scenes, there is an active revolution brewing on the part of conservative women to claim the word “feminist” as their own.
“Moving up to the primary endorsement process, we intentionally started a conversation about women’s rights and what is at the center of it, what shouldn’t be at the center,” Dannenfelser told The Daily Caller. “The women’s movement in its current form has abortion at the core and that is why we have started a dialogue about what true feminism is. It is not because I have ever labeled myself a feminist, but we really felt we needed to take them on on their own ground.”
“There is a conscious effort being made on the part of a lot of conservative women politicians to be using this word, feminist,” Carrie Lukas, vice-president and director of policy for the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, told The Daily Caller. “But they are offering a very different brand of liberation than what is usually associated with the term, which has really become, over the last few decades, associated with groups like NOW [National Organization for Women], which are essentially indistinguishable from the Democratic Party and are more about big government than women.”
NOW executive vice-president, Bonnie Grabenhofer, told The Daily Caller that to her, “feminism is a social justice movement aimed at getting social, political, and economic equality for women. We work for the advancement of women on multiple fronts.”
Dannenfelser says that the advancement that women’s groups like NOW provide is very selective and she credits Sarah Palin with leading the way for conservative women in politics today.
“The old guard feminists say they have opened the door for women, but when ladies like us show up, they just want to slam the door in our face,” she said. “But Palin shoved it open and was the first women of her kind on the national stage. She created opportunities for more women to run.”
According to Grabenhofer, Palin doesn’t qualify as a feminist.
“I do not consider Sarah Palin to be a feminist,” she said. “She has benefitted from the work of feminists but she has not worked to advance the rights of women. She works against the progressive ideas meant to help.”
Grabenhofer continued, saying that in order to be a feminist, a woman must support abortion rights.
“If you cannot control your reproductive rights, you cannot fully participate in society,” she explained.
The conservative attempt to usurp the word feminist has arisen in response to the idea that only women who believe that the right to an abortion is a legitimate right can be considered liberated.
“We actually never claimed the word feminist for ourselves until recently, only because we plan to keep it to defeat them on their own ground. Liberation should not come from killing your future baby, continual grievances and pushing men down,” Dannenfelser said. “Those women that put abortion at their center have ignored legitimate concerns we might have and instead have spent all their time on things which have hurt women.”
Dannenfelser continued, “The women’s movement has ignored us conservative women for many election cycles, but they cannot ignore this tidal wave of pro-life conservative women that are running and that are not just running—anyone can put their name on a ballot—but are viable candidates.”
Lukas attributed the wave of Republican women running for political office this cycle not just to Sarah Palin, but to what she sees as the overall pain the country has felt under President Obama.
“A lot of the leaders of the Tea Party are women and people who have not been in politics or wanted to be in politics before,” she said. “They have been out living their lives. But the country is at a crossroads and many feel compelled to stand up against the radical change and the problems our country faces.”
Lukas continued by noting that the upsurge in conservative feminists in political life is making liberal women’s rights groups “furious.” But Lukas doesn’t see anything wrong with ruffling their feathers.
“We are pushing against them, saying, ‘women are not victims, limited government benefits women, conservative principles are good for us,’” she said. “The larger threat from conservative women is not just ending abortion, but also undermining the idea of women as victims.”
Speaking of this conservative women uprising to take back the term feminist, NOW’s Grabenhofer said, “Many of the women with that point of view take the stance of the early suffragists and they think the work is done. It’s not. They’re not feminists.”
But to Dannenfelser, it’s people like Grabenhofer who’ve got it wrong.
“There is a moment when ladies need to stand up to the women who compose groups like NOW and say, no, this is not liberation for me,” she said. “This will be the year of the real woman. For the first time, real women are actually going to be represented and have their voices heard.”
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