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The evolution of the conservative woman: What I learned about gender at CPAC 2011

February 16, 2011 - 02:30 PM
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Role models Palin and Bachmann (Photo: Associated Press)

Last weekend marked the 38th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference—and the first since the election cycle hailed as “The Year of the Conservative Woman.” To mark the occasion, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute has gathered 200 young conservative women into one room for its “Woman of the Year” banquet. The institute lined the girls’ seats with free copies of David Limbaugh’s new book and glossy brochures protesting the “Vagina Monologues.” As the program begins, the students at my table pick at pesto grilled chicken and bury their noses in “Sense and Sexuality,” a pamphlet that promises “real protection in a hooked-up world.” Topics include “risky sex” and “beer goggles.”

I ask the girls questions about their political futures as conservative women. “I still think it’s a man’s world, unfortunately, in D.C.,” says Morgan Carstensen, a 19-year-old studying political science at the University of Arizona. “The political culture is very male-oriented. Domestic responsibilities still fall on the woman. And those roles have to change.” I raise the counterpoint of Michele Bachmann, the successful tax lawyer who has raised five children of her own, sheltered 23 foster children, and still managed to become the first Republican woman to represent the state of Minnesota in Congress. She managed. Carstensen nods knowingly. “And do you think that has anything to do with her having money behind her?”

Sitting next to Carstensen is 20-year-old Lauren Bouton, a junior at the university who is preparing to launch a bid for College Republicans chapter president next year. Bouton’s policy priorities are “securing the border,” healthcare, and taxes. Lower on the list are gay-marriage and abortion rights. Bouton supports both. “Everyone assumes we’re a part of the traditional conservative movement,” Bouton says. “We’re not. We’re more Libertarian.” Later that day, a plurality of CPAC attendees who voted in the presidential straw poll—49 percent of them under the age of 26—would cast their votes for Ron Paul.

Carstensen and Bouton aren’t into the feminist agenda—“at a certain point, it becomes obnoxious,” Carstensen explains—but they are nevertheless keenly aware of the barriers they may face once they enter the political machine. And who is the “Woman of the Year” the Clare Boothe Policy Institute has chosen to inspire young women like them? Michelle Duggar, star of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” a woman who has made a career out of producing as many babies as humanly possible.

“I am not a public speaker. I’m a mom. I’m a wife,” Duggar begins in a syrupy lilt. “If you see me shaking, it’s because I’m not used to talking in front of a big group. You might consider 19 children a big group, but to me that’s normal!” Duggar speaks for thirty minutes on God’s plan in her life, marking time by counting the amount of children she has expelled: “back when I had seven babies under the age of seven”; “at that time we probably had about nine, and were expecting our second set of twins.” The young conservative sitting next to me buried her head in her chair to stifle a groan.

“America is the greatest country in the world to be a woman, because we have so many choices,” Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute president Michelle Easton tells me following Duggar’s speech. “You can be a mom, you can be a professional woman, you can be half and half. We have women who say, ‘I’m never going to work’, and women who say, ‘I’m never going to get married.’” But faced with a group of rising conservative women who are threatening to turn indifferent—even liberal—on social issues, the institute has chosen a “woman of the year” who has devoted the entirety of her reproductive years to reproducing. Duggar “represents all the qualities of a conservative woman,” one who “puts family first,” Easton says. The message hit its mark. “I could not see Michelle Duggar as a congresswoman or senator,” Bouton tells me.


How do you solve the problem of the conservative woman?

This year’s CPAC conference attendees snapped up novelty “Bachmann 12” T-shirts and lined up for autographs from nerd-chic columnist S.E. Cupp. They awarded multiple standing ovations to 49-year-old author Ann Coulter and a lifetime achievement prize to 86-year-old anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. On Friday, a Sarah Palin impersonator inspired a flash mob in the hotel lobby.

But in the conservative movement, real women are still hard to come by. Despite the high-profile women headlining this year’s CPAC, male speakers on the main convention floor outnumbered women ten-to-one. In the 112th Congress, over 75 percent of female officeholders are on the other side of the aisle. And CPAC attendance has hovered at 30 percent female since 2007. At the conference’s conclusion, two college-aged men stand in front of a flat-screen television, their eyes glued to a bar graph illustrating the conference’s gender disparity. One of the boys shakes his head, turns to his friend, and says: “Sausage fest.”

The right needs female political participation—women were a key voting bloc in the 2008 Democratic victory and the 2010 Republican gains. But the very idea of catering to underrepresented demographics inspires accusations of “pandering” and “identity politics” among the conservative base. Helming a CPAC panel entitled “Changing the Conversation: Winning Minorities, Women, and Independence,” Fox News contributor Margaret Hoover admits that “the nature of this panel might seem a little incongruous” to true conservative believers. In order to seize the female vote, the party must not pander, but rather “customize” its message for women. “That doesn’t mean we change our message,” Hoover insists. “Not like the Democrats do.”

The trick is to convert women to the conservative fold without blurring the party line—or leading them too far astray from the kitchen.


Enter Smart Girl Politics, an organization dedicated to advancing conservative female candidates, from the school board to Congress. “No one is saying ‘less women in politics,’” says Rebecca Wales, Director of Communications for SGP. “I do sometimes hear, ‘women belong in the home.’”

Smart Girl Politics can work with that. “Women can be stay-at-home moms and public servants. You can run for office and be a stay-at-home mom,” Wales tells me. Both Wales and SGP founder Stacy Mott count themselves as mothers first, political organizers second. They take conference calls in between feedings and homework help. And they can hang on to the traditionalist stay-at-home designation as long as their initiative fails to turn a profit. “There are counterpoints to the argument ‘you can’t do both,’” says Wales. After all, even Michelle Duggar has co-authored two books, starred in five seasons of cable television show, and inspired four TV specials.

Despite the traditional flavor, SGP is a progressive force in a party that Mott says has “definitely” been slow to accept women in leadership positions. The key to women gaining traction in the conservative movement is “not to isolate yourselves and just tackle women’s issues,” says Mott. “This isn’t about gearing ‘conservative’ towards women and separating the movement. It’s not about changing the party to suit the identity. It’s about reaching out to people like you.”

But the organization has also been careful not to alienate potential recruits. SGP steers clear of making policy priorities out of classic “women’s issues,” instead focusing on energy, education, health and wellness. In a recent survey, Smart Girls were split 90 percent pro-life and 10 percent pro-choice. “We don’t believe in a litmus test,” says Wales. If you identify as conservative, we take you at your word.”

SGP will need as many women as it can get. While the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute is encouraging political upstarts to put family first, progressive institutions like EMILY’s List are far outstripping conservative organizations in encouraging women to run for office. And Republicans have good reason to be wary of the effort. Across the board, women aren't much more likely to vote for female candidates than male candidates. And compared to Republican men, conservative women are perceived to be more moderate, invested in women’s issues, and “report a sense of obligation to act as surrogate representatives for women as a whole”—in other words, they’re more likely to be seen as privileging “identity politics.”

That could be why Democrats and Independents of all genders hold a more positive view of female Republicans than male ones—and, conversely, why Republicans in general have a more negative view of Republican women: A female Republican candidate may be more vulnerable to going soft on core party values. Of course, female Republicans also have plenty in common with their male counterparts—they're more likely to be white, married, child-rearing Christians than Democrats, for starters. And in the rise of the Mama Grizzlies, another role has emerged for them: Female conservatives may have more leeway in pushing for hard-right issues without losing their mainstream appeal.


“The culture itself has changed,” says Alyssa Cardova, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute’s 25-year-old lecture director. Cardova rejects the myth that conservatives think "all women should be barefoot and pregnant." But even as conservative women gain political agency, “conservative values don’t change,” Cardova says. “They just manifest themselves in different ways.”

At CPAC, a variety of manifestations of the conservative woman are on display—sometimes in the same body. Take 86-year-old Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, who reminisces on her anti-feminist activism while accepting a Luce Institute lifetime achievement award. Feminists, Schlafly tells the crowd, are a group of "nihilists" who want a "matriarchy” with "women in charge”; conservative women must get involved in politics to fight their influence. Who exactly would be in charge, then?

Following Schlafly’s speech, students line up to seek advice in combating feminism on their own campuses. Bobby, a senior at American University, is taking a course on “women in political leadership,” where he says he was forced to watch a video on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, narrated by Gloria Steinem. Schlafly’s advice: “Why were you wasting your education and tuition money on that dumb class?”

Schlafly does not appear terribly aware of the fact that she is currently seated in a similar forum, a CPAC panel called “The Rise of the Conservative Woman.” Joining Schlafly is a crew of all-female political luminaries, from Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann to columnist S.E. Cupp. Schlafly’s career is marked by such delusions: She is a woman who travels the country telling women to stay in the home. Schlafly concludes her remarks today with her classic feminist-baiting line: “I want to thank my husband Fred for allowing me to be here tonight.” Fred has been dead since 1993.

Here in 2011, Schlafly isn’t exactly being shuffled off the conservative stage, but she is being asked to share it. Rep. Bachmann, bearing no resemblance to the wild-eyed hysteric that has dominated her image on the left, leads off the panel with a sex joke. “I’m so proud to have been awarded the ‘Luce Woman’ award,” Bachmann says. “They could have come up with a different name. I’m not sure I should go around calling myself a ‘Luce Woman’ in Minnesota. Especially since I have so many kids.”

In Bachmann’s iteration of the conservative woman, the inherent tension between the powerful woman and the traditional mom can be addressed out in the open. “You know, people ask me, ‘Why is it always women taking on guys on the left?’” Bachmann says. “It is fun to be a conservative. We have a great time. We have so much fun taking on the left.” But “as much fun as we have in politics, don’t forget about getting married,” Bachmann says. “Women want to go out into the real world. But the real world is the world you create with your husband, and the kids you’ll be privileged to bear. It is the greatest job in the world.”

Conservative women are having so much fun debating liberal men on the national stage that they forgot to get married? That sounds a little bit like progress. Cleta Mitchell, a D.C.-based attorney who has represented Sharron Angle, also finds an audience of young women that needs to be warned off experiencing too much success. “I’m still mad at the guy who beat me,” Mitchell says of her unsuccessful 1986 bid for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. “I’m still mad about losing, but I’m glad I didn’t win.” Losing that election “meant I could put my baby to bed every night,” Mitchell explains. “You can’t have it all,” she tells the room. “Not at the same time. We live our lives in chapters, and that’s wonderful.”

Finally, there is S.E. Cupp, the young, unmarried Ivy League atheist with a gender-neutral byline and a New York City apartment. Her specialty is advancing secular arguments to reinforce hard-right social conservative values; she identifies as pro-life, for example, because she finds abortion “impolite.”

“I was asked to talk about what drew me to conservatism ‘as a woman,’” says the 31-year-old commentator. “I’ve always found that premise, ‘as a woman,’ to be a little problematic. Like, ‘I don’t know, let me ask my uterus.’ If we’re going to dig for reasons for conservatism to appeal to special interest groups,” Cupp adds, “we might as well be liberals.”

Cupp is drawn to conservatism not because she is a woman, but because she finds it to be a more “authentic,” “experiential” philosophy. In Cupp’s version of conservative femininity, a woman need not even experience marriage, motherhood, and religious piety in order to promote these values as the most authentic way of living. Cupp’s contradictions, too transparent to rise to the level of hypocrisy, are the ultimate condemnation of “identity politics.” She is the natural extension of Schalfly’s denial; in this new political landscape, a woman could identify as a liberal as long as she’s willing to amplify conservative talking points on Fox News and The Daily Caller. The modern conservative woman doesn’t have to do it all: All she has to do is vote for it.



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  1. Jennifer Jansen Jennifer Jansen

    Jennifer Jansen

    Feb 23, 2011 - 02:29:56 AM

    This aggrandizing group of conservative "smart girls" should be ashamed of themselves. Could they not find a woman within their ranks more suited to the title, "Mother of the Year"? Michelle Duggar, star of reality tv's, "Nineteen and Counting", children that is. They have got to be kidding. Right?

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  2. TJ TJ

    TJ T

    Feb 17, 2011 - 02:22:06 PM

    Excellent, Amanda. And good for you for being there an entire day and not throw up a little in your mouth!

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