At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), one of the largest right-wing annual political conferences, Kellyanne Conway – currently serving as Counsellor to President Donald Trump, and formerly his campaign manager – rejected feminism to great applause, saying: “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male . . . I look at myself as a product of my choices not a victim of my circumstances.” She went on to relate an anecdote of her mother’s self-directed success in the face of hardship: “My mother didn’t feel sorry for herself, she was left with no child support no alimony at a very young age, with a child to raise [with] a high-school education, and she just figured it out.” The nature of Conway’s disapproval of feminism outlined here is not dissimilar to the apprehension many (predominantly ideologically conservative) women feel towards the movement.
For instance, in response to events like the Women’s March on Washington in conservative social media circles recently, a popular ‘feminism-rejection manifesto’ of sorts had been doing the rounds. The principal part of it reads: “I am not a ‘disgrace to women’ because I don’t support the women’s march. I do not feel I am a ‘second class citizen’ because I am a woman. I do not feel my voice is ‘not heard’ because I am a woman. I do not feel I am not provided the opportunities in this life or in America because I am a woman… I AM a woman. I can make my own choices.”
“What women problem?” read a slogan on flyers at the Women Vote Trump fringe event at the Republican National Convention.
Evidently, many conservative women feel that feminism is redundant because, as far as they’re concerned, they have already achieved equality of opportunity on their own terms. Indeed, “What women problem?” read a slogan on flyers at the Women Vote Trump fringe event at the Republican National Convention. What’s more, they don’t wish to be associated with a movement that they identify as promoting victimhood amongst women and, considering the abortion debate in particular, most likely conflicts with their conservative social values.
And, some may argue, don’t women like Conway have the agency to reject feminism if they so please? Is there anything to be gained in responding to her comments at CPAC, any pragmatic value in engaging those women who feel like they don’t need feminism? Of course, we should not force anybody to join in with feminism against their own will. However, there is certainly utility in attempting to persuade women like Conway to reconsider their conception of feminism as the movement’s acceptance in wider society – and by extension it’s power to actualise the change that it wants – is at least partially dependant on co-opting the support of powerful privileged women like Conway.
This being the case, what is the appropriate response to Conway’s claim that feminism as she sees it is redundant? The typical response: “She’s misunderstood the definition of feminism. She says it’s anti-male and promotes female victimhood but somebody should tell her that it’s about equality” is, firstly, unlikely to be productive and, secondly, a damagingly reductive thesis. “If you believe that women are equal to men, then you’re a feminist” is an impotent statement. It implies a passive state that offers no proactive value to feminism when, in fact, being a feminist should go further and involve an active engagement with achieving gender equality for all women, everywhere. Contributing to campaigns, charity work, protests, writing and on the everyday level – engaging non-feminists in discussion and interrogating their belief that the movement is inconsequential – in other words working towards rights for women outside of your own comfortable sphere, is the operative definition of a feminist. The crux of this issue is the transfer of female identity from society to the individual, which enables women like Conway to criticise feminism because she perceives that she has achieved equality, whilst being ignorant of the predicament of women across the world.
what amounts to ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is only a “timeless” lesson and opportunity for women who have the social privilege to do so in the first place.
Thus, the apt response to women like Conway, is to encourage them to question what privileges allowed them to attain equality to begin with. In her case, she said her mother “just figured it out”, and went on to say that “she didn’t complain, she didn’t rely upon government, she relied upon her… self-confidence, her own drive… her family… and I believe those are timeless lessons and timeless opportunities for all women.” But what of all those oppressed women who lack this self-confidence, who do not have a supportive family to fall back on, or, perhaps because of their ethnicity, face everyday discrimination and therefore do not have the support of their community?
The productive response, therefore, is arguing that what amounts to ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is only a “timeless” lesson and opportunity for women who have the social privilege to do so in the first place. In other words, whilst we should be able to acknowledge that women like Conway and many other conservatives feel that feminism is worthless to them and, therefore, could be perceived as promoting a kind of ‘victimhood’, we must endorse the idea to such women (and men) that feminism aims to support the needs of the oppressed who need it most, and therefore there is, in many ways, a moral imperative in lending one’s proactive support to the movement for the good of all women across the world.