Since Sarah Palin redefined the word “feminist” to include women who actively work against women’s rights, female Republican candidates in the upcoming primaries have been rallying behind the cause and riding the wave of faux-feminist populism to hopeful victories. In California in particular, two conservative women who have reached that apex of self-determination afforded by wealth are proving that white women can be rich, anti-woman Republicans too.
Carly Fiorina is running for the Republican nomination for one of California’s two Senate seats, currently held by Democrat Barbara Boxer. A self-made multimillionaire and former CEO of HP, she’s earned the right to play the big money game with the men running against her. Endorsed by Sarah Palin in her oddly admirable but entirely misguided quest to elevate conservative women candidates, Fiorina is now the favorite in the Republican primary. If she wins, she will run against Boxer, who has nowhere near the amount of money Fiorina has.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman is the former CEO of eBay, and also came into her wealth through business. Her main opponent in the primary is state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who also gained his wealth through high tech business. Both Poizner and Whitman have spent masses of their personal fortunes battling it out — $80 million for Whitman, $23 million for Poizner.
These women are part of a new wave of conservative feminism, which apparently views women’s advancement in the workplace and politics to be the most important tenet of actual feminism. Basically, these conservative feminist leaders have decided that the advancement of women to the upper echelons of business — something they have already achieved — is what feminism should really be about. Behind the complicated, self-invalidating beliefs pairing the “right to life” with an exhortation to protect women and children and their token glorification of the homemaker is just the basic white feminist desire to finally reach that level of equality with men in regards to power and most importantly, privilege. Once the smoke clears, wealthy conservative feminist candidates will likely discontinue the rhetoric exalting homemaking as one of the most important things a woman can do. By opposing ideas like subsidized child care, access to birth control, and legal abortion, these women will actually make things worse for any homemaker not privileged by race and wealth.
Sarah Palin has cited Margaret Thatcher as a conservative feminist hero, even though Thatcher made it clear she did not desire to be called such, stating “I owe nothing to feminism”. This illustrates an important point: feminist does not mean “strong woman”. Conservative feminists conflate the two entirely, which is why they feel they can get away with calling themselves feminists while holding beliefs and supporting causes antithetical to feminism. By labeling every female Republican primary candidate “feminist” when they mean “strong woman” they seek to redefine the word so that they can appropriate it for their own benefit.
Being that the apparent leaders of the burgeoning conservative feminist “movement” are extremely privileged, it’s hard to believe they will advocate for anyone but those at their own level of privilege. If you take a look at those calling themselves conservative feminists, the vast majority of them are white. Their complete lack of focus on issues concerning women of color combined with the lack of representation of women of color in their movement belies their populist claims of “sisterhood”. As with families, in this movement your sister tends to look a lot like you. In that sense, conservative feminism hearkens back to the days when more liberal feminists sought to marginalize women of color, lesbian women, and poor women. This is not surprising, as conservatism tends to look backward rather than forward.
The conservative feminist movement desires to reap the rewards of the strides made by actual feminists without actually having to agree or support the whole of feminist ideology. By taking feminism and removing the tenets that are disagreeable to them, which happen to be the most important tenets, their message basically amounts to a sophisticated exhortation of “girl power”. But this girl power is solely available to those it benefits the most — wealthy, white, cisgendered women. Poor women, working class women, women of color, trans women, and other traditionally marginalized groups cannot see themselves in this movement because it is not designed for them. Real inclusive feminism sees the struggles of all women to be important, internal or external, as evidenced by the oft-quoted feminist refrain that “the personal is political”. This conservative feminism wants nothing to do with the personal unless it’s used as bait to reel in less privileged conservative women who will ultimately not be served by the movement at all.
Feminists who believe in actual social justice for all women, who work towards advancing related causes, must be vocal about the appropriation of the term “feminist”. As Kate Harding pointed out, “words mean things”. Working for, not against, women’s basic rights, including the right to choose, is a central tenet of feminism. Conservative “feminists” seek a redefinition that excludes that which is most important about the movement they are co-opting. We need to force them to come up with their own word.