Conservative Feminism

Liberals have no monopoly on advancing women's interests

Posted Aug 19, 2015

This blog is another guest post.  Before starting here, I suggest you read the introduction which can be found here. Short version: I have issued several calls specifically for women willing to write guest posts that contest the “narratives of oppression and victimization” that dominate social psychology and the social sciences. 

This post is by Nina Silander, a doctoral candidate of clinical psychology at Regent University who's interests lie in trauma and substance abuse treatment, women's issues, and public policy.  The rest (except for the graphics) is Nina's....

.........................................................................

Do you believe that men and women ought to have social, political, and economic equality? If so, you are a feminist by commonly used definitions [1]. Yet, if you want to be accepted by mainstream, contemporary feminism, you must identify as pro-choice, reject the reality of innate or biologically based gender differences or the concept of

Dan Woychick
Source: Dan Woychick

human nature, condemn traditional relationships and family dynamics, and subscribe to specific avenues for achieving gender equality and justice. What a tall order if you differ in values but nonetheless defend the fundamental tenets of (“classical”) feminism. So…is there room for ideological diversity in feminism? What can an authentic conservative feminist ideology offer?

Perspectives vary greatly. To some [2], the concept of a conservative feminist is, at best, a misinformed and uneducated attempt at appropriation of women’s rights, as if there’s no such thing as “conservative feminism,” only some forms that are more conservative than others [3]. A more extreme belief is that a conservative feminist identity is an attempt to undercut women’s efforts towards equality by masking a patriarchal wolf in the sheep’s clothing of women’s rights. Yet, feminists who strive for ‘reproductive rights,’ namely abortion, inevitably foster the perception that women are incapable of motherhood while maintaining a career. The legality of abortion empowers irresponsible men, negates societal resources and services, and underutilizes science and medicine more than it frees women by creating parity [4]. Why not prioritize efforts towards social and employment resources and programs for women’s and family health instead?

Ideological Diversity? Why Not?

Feminism has been a movement without a clear, well-articulated answer, or destination. In 1973, this question was asked: “What do women want?” At that time, the lack of a clear answer presented a rhetorical opening and “an additional seed of invention to be cultivated and discursively explored” [5]. Today, feminism may be able to answer this question but with notable limitations. The movement has become pigeonholed. Feminism claims to advocate for what all women want. But, women “are not a homogenous but a heterogeneous group–and because feminism simply does not speak for, or to, all women–good representation is enhanced by the making present of complementary, competing and conflicting views on what women, and their interests and needs, are” [6].

Politifake
Source: Politifake

Yet, many contemporary feminists deny the possibility that conservative women can represent women’s interests, instead “preemptively dismissing conservative acts or claims,” which in turn inhibits “good conceptual or empirical research” [7]. Moreover, a common reaction of contemporary feminist psychologists has been to deny or dismiss complex research findings of assorted gender differences (with varied effect sizes).  This inhibits dissemination and review of statistically sound and relevant research.  Such research need not threaten efforts to enhance women’s lives (as many feminists seem to presume) because differences do not equate to female inferiority [8]. Instead, these findings provide a window for responsibly motivated, expansive discussion about society, gender, biology, and stereotypes, such as women’s effectiveness in Congress [9].

There are other challenges too. Feminism and efforts to promote women’s rights had “long encountered arguments grounded in stereotypes, oversimplification, and polarized thinking – one may not be both feminine and adopt a role in the public realm, for example” [10]. And yet, contemporary feminism shut out women who strive for equality but share different values. Here’s a chance to not treat self-identified conservative (feminist) people according to the same stereotypes, oversimplifications, and political polarization that the movement has worked hard to overcome! To many, this conservative feminist movement is an “exhilarating” opportunity as well as an oxymoron (or, as I would argue, a paradox) - “a figurative and argumentative structure within feminist rhetoric [that] operates as an inventional space and provides an opportunity for addressing an anomaly requiring explanation and attention” [11].

Feminism should recognize that “one size does not fit all.” So what if feminism, in its current form, does not account for all who strive for gender equality? Is a person who holds differing values yet seeks to advance women’s rights, in fact undeserving of the title “feminist”? Katherine Kersten, a conservative feminist, challenges this same question while retaining the essence of feminism (“classical feminism”). Men and women must receive the same standards of equality and justice; women have and continue to suffer injustice and discrimination; and the problems women encounter are best “addressed by building on—rather than repudiating—the ideals and institutions of Western culture” [12]. After all, contemporary feminists could be forgetting that the West alone “has evolved the standards of justice, equality, and individual autonomy by which they now measure their society, and claim to find it utterly wanting.” The goal of feminism is to assist women in knowing when, how, and what kind of change should take place, supported by the notion that men and women alike ought to have freedom to discover their potential without being constrained by preconceptions about their abilities [13].

Same Premises, Different Values, Alternative Solutions

What does conservatism offer feminism? Baehr explains that while feminism has operated under the assumption that traditional marriage, motherhood, and sexual morality involve gender hierarchy, conservatism upholds that these “conventional social forms,” though imperfect and at times in need of adjustment, are nonetheless conducive to wellbeing and consequently should be preserved [14]. So, conservative feminism does not share many of contemporary feminism’s broad philosophically applied claims but nonetheless contributes to feminism by attending to the health and wellbeing of women and families as well as society as a whole. Conservative feminism accepts the “classical” tenets of feminism but seeks alternative solutions to addressing the identified problems (e.g. “special help” programs to support women going into STEM fields rather than affirmative action and group quotas that neglect personal merit – or shaping of behaviors to promote intact families and minimize poverty rather than merely increasing welfare programs that after 25 years have had minimal impact [15]).

What else can conservatism contribute to feminism? Capitalism. That’s right. The notion that it cannot legitimately advance women’s lives must be abandoned. Capitalism creates a society in which change is constant and innovation enhances quality of life. In the public and political sphere, diverse and democratic representation fosters competition that automatically furthers women’s interests (e.g. developing more efficacious contraceptives) [16]. Look around the world. Capitalism promotes the freedom to make decisions and strive ambitiously with societal and economic support in place. Capitalism has historically benefitted Western women, evident when compared to women living in third world countries under narrowly dictated social norms today as they have for centuries, confined to domestic life with limited or no opportunity to explore and develop personal talents and ambitions [17].

In the process of promoting women in the workplace, albeit, an incredibly important effort, contemporary feminism has severely demoted the family and parenthood, particularly the significance of intact families with biological parents [18]. Regarding the role of modern women and their families, Kersten presents a compelling perspective worthy of much consideration:

“Unlike many contemporary feminists, the conservative feminist does not conceive of obligations to others as burdens, but as duties, the performance of which renders one a moral being. Her focus on duties does not mean that she is a dupe or a slave, or that she denies her own needs and interests to please others, as women have been forced to do in the past. On the contrary, the conservative feminist knows that it is impossible to forge an identity for herself outside a social context. She understands that it is the web of connections with others that produces a sense of purpose and an arena for moral action, by creating a meaningful role in an enterprise larger than her own finite existence.” [19]

A Fulfilling Life         

While conservatism (of conservatism feminism) promotes healthy formation and continued support for families, feminism ensures that parents form equally balanced partnerships that prioritize the development of their children. Happiness is gained through utilizing one’s “energies in whatever direction interest, talent, and thirst for adventure may lead” that also fulfills obligations to family, fellow citizens, and society [20]. Incompatible goals? Absolutely not! One successful career woman and mother notes that this double career is not an easy task. A woman can “have it all” under different societal conditions. Women have the power (and male support) to create these conditions to accommodate choices pertaining to work and family; however, reprioritization of family and work is necessary, rather than simply bending to career demands [21]. As for any parent regardless of gender, reprioritization involves making trade-offs related to career or family to maximize family and personal wellbeing, (e.g. turning down job advancements to keep one’s children at the same school or opting to have fewer children to accomplish specific career goals). Nonetheless, women have an array of ways to fulfill parenting responsibilities and be actively engaged in careers and community [22].

Redefining Moments

Unfortunately, many feel unable to identify as feminists, though they advocate for the welfare of women, because they hold conservative values [23]. If so, then what name ought “conservative feminists” take to have recognition and influence in a parallel movement that seeks many of the same goals as contemporary feminism? Definitions are important, and at times, movements beg redefining. We are at a “definitional moment” to raise questions and provide clarification. “Definitional moments” allow opportunities to not only recreate definitions but to hone movements for societal health, while incorporating greater diversity of values [24]. In fact, “choice” is essentially used as a metonym for feminism [25]. Surely contemporary feminists can share their umbrella with conservative feminists to advocate for the “classical” tenets of feminism in a unified, invested effort towards gender equality, while permitting elbow room for ideological diversity.

While conservatives are more reluctant to challenge the status quo and less likely to recognize inequalities that women face, conservative feminists do share commonalities with contemporary feminists. It is important for contemporary feminists to see that conservative feminists have a legitimate voice, valuable perspective, and a wealth of strategies when it comes to gender equality-related issues. Conservative feminism strengthens the weaknesses of conservatism and the weaknesses of feminism; it allows women to have their cake and eat it too.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries

[2] Gibson, K. L. & Heyse, A. L. (2014). Depoliticizing feminism: Frontier mythology and Sarah Palin’s “The rise of the mama grizzlies.” Western Journal of Communication, 78(1), 97-117.

Soares, M. A.G. (2013). The problem that has a name: On ‘Mama Grizzlies’ and conservative feminism. Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra, 12-13.

[3] Baehr, A. R. (2009). Conservatism, feminism, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Hypatia, 24(2), 101-124.

[4] Gibson & Heyse (2014).

Bachiochi, E. (2015). I’m a feminist and I’m against abortion. CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/22/opinion/bachiochi-abortion-roe-v-wade/

Stockhouse, Jr. J. G. (2015). Op Ed. in Christianity Today.

[5] Campbell, 1973 as cited in McCarver, V. (2012). The new oxymoron: Socially conservative feminism. Women & Language, 35(1), 57-76.

[6] Celis, K. & Childs, S. (2012). The substantive representation of women: What to do with conservative claims? Political Studies, 60, 213-225.

[7] Ibid. p. 214.

[8] Eagly, A. (1995). The science and politics of comparing women and men. American Psychologist, 50(3), 145-158.

[9] Volden, C., Wiseman, A. E., Wittmer, D. E. (2013). When are women more effective lawmakers than men? American Journal of Political Science, 00(0), 1-16.

[10] Campbell, 1989 & Zaeske, 1995 as cited in McCarver (2012), p. 61.

[11] McCarver (2012), p. 59.

Dillard, A. D. (2005). Adventures in conservative feminism. Society, 42(3), 25-27.

[12] Kersten, K. (1991). What do women want? A conservative feminist manifesto. Policy Review, 56, 4-15.

[13] Ibid, no page numbers.

[14] Baehr (2009), p. 102.

[15] Kersten (1991).

[16] Celis & Childs (2012).

[17] Kersten (1991).

[18] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Adverse family experiences among children in nonparental care, 2011-2012. National Health Statistics Reports, 74, 1-8.

[19] Kersten (1991), no page numbers.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Slaughter, A. (2012). Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant...

[22] Kersten (1991).

[23] Baehr (2009).

[24] McCarver (2012).

[25] McCarver, V. (2011). The rhetoric of choice and 21st-century feminism: Online conversations about work, family, and Sarah Palin. Women’s Studies in Communication, 34, 20-41.