You know feminism must be getting trendy if groups who claim to abhor it nonetheless would like a piece of the action. Take leading members of the GOP, for example. As Media Matters captured, CNN had a rather baffling puff piece this week with Mindy Finn, former media strategist for the Republican National Committee. Finn got a full four minutes, without being challenged, to claim that there’s no conflict between being a conservative and a feminist; she even implied that it’s narrow-minded to insist that adherence to basic liberal principles is part of feminism. Don’t believe the RNC hype. “Feminism” is a broad umbrella, absolutely, but it’s not so broad that people who fight efforts to secure women’s equality fit under it.
If it weren’t so sad that this was being passed off as “journalism,” this CNN segment would almost be funny. Finn accused feminists of having a “narrow conversation.” “Women’s power, women’s political power might have been limited to talking about reproductive rights,” she added. Instead of a supposedly “narrow” conversation about things like equal pay, reproductive rights, ending gendered violence, and ending workplace discrimination, Finn seems to think the better idea would be to refocus discussion on getting a few more women, ideally Republicans, into office. (Pro-choicers have been effectively increasing the ranks of women in power, by the way, for decades.) How that is broader, Finn does not explain.
This is a nonsense meme on two levels. For one, it’s simply not true. Not a single Democrat accused of this has run on a platform limited to protecting reproductive choice. Even Mark Udall, nicknamed Mark Uterus by Republican opponents for his focus on reproductive health issues, had a broad economic agenda, strong support for LGBTQ rights, and an interest in fighting global warming. In contrast, Republicans of late have become so singularly obsessed with controlling women’s bodies that the Texas legislature nearly broke into a literal fistfight when some Republicans dared consider the possibility of making something other than attacking women’s rights a priority this year. (Those Republicans eventually relented to their vagina-obsessed colleagues and have returned to the all-abortion-all-the-time priority system.)
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Second of all, people who support reproductive rights don’t do so in a vacuum, but generally support a broad range of feminist and pro-woman policies. Indeed, congressional pro-choicers have been fairly busy lately when it comes to the feminist agenda, pushing legislation addressing sexual violence and equal pay. Abortion is inextricably tied up into a whole array of partisan concerns. The same Republicans who oppose abortion rights also killed an equal pay bill, even though it was a limited bill that would mostly make it easier for women to find out what male colleagues make. The same Republicans very nearly killed the previously unassailable Violence Against Women Act, though the “war on women” meme made this so embarrassing they finally had to give up the fight. Still, nearly twice as many Republicans voted against it as for it.
Finn and her Republican cronies would like you to believe there’s all these women out there, fighting the good fight while also opposing abortion rights, but there just isn’t. Being opposed to reproductive rights is firmly linked, both in Congress and in the general voting public, with overall sexist attitudes toward women.
Indeed, the notion that there’s some kind of pro-woman or even feminist agenda that is compatible with anti-choice views is belied by Finn’s own interview. She claims that these mythical conservative feminists advocate for “women’s equality and success,” but never actually says how. Not one policy is mentioned: Nothing on single-pay health care, no ideas on how to combat discrimination, not even any acknowledgement that sexism is a thing that exists. This is no surprise. Substantive bills helping women outside of the realm of reproductive rights don’t come from Republicans. The best you get is when they offer watered-down versions of bills like the Violence Against Women Act, with the clear message being, “If we must do something for women, can we at least do less?”
It’s really rich of Finn to accuse real feminists of being “narrow” when the conservative feminist agenda is empty. Even if reproductive rights was all feminism was about—which it isn’t—at least that’s one more agenda item than is on display here.
Instead of discussing policy, Finn tries to redirect your attention to a handful of Republican women who would very much like to have a lot of power for themselves by winning office. While getting more women into office—and into business and into all sorts of arenas in life—is a feminist goal, it’s silly and reductive to act like simply having a few more women on C-SPAN is a meaningful substitute for true equality. Having more women politicians is an empty gesture if those women refuse to help everyone else out. Women need things like equal pay, safe workplaces, and yes, reproductive rights, none of which these supposedly “feminist” conservatives are going to offer them.
The irony in all this is that reproductive rights are a far more essential part of securing women’s equality than simply electing women to office. If women can’t control something as basic as when they give birth, they are going to fall behind men economically and politically. Finn may talk big about “role models,” but looking up to a Carly Fiorina-type doesn’t help you if you have to quit your job because you can’t afford child care.
The people who want to reduce women to their vaginas are those who want to take control of reproduction away from us. They want our bodies to rule us and determine our lives, our own hopes and dreams be damned. That’s what is truly reductive here.
Honestly, to hear conservatives like Finn talk, you’d think that it was just a remarkable coincidence that the rapid expansion of women’s access to education and career opportunities just happened simultaneously with the expansion of abortion rights and access to reliable contraception. Surely no one believes that. Indeed, the likeliest reason that there’s been an explosion in attacks on abortion rights and contraception access in recent years is because it’s a reaction to feminism’s popularity and a direct attempt to turn back the clock on women’s progress before it’s too late.
But, as with many things on the right, admitting as much out loud is perceived as toxic to their chances with moderate voters. Instead, the strategy is to pretend to be pro-woman—even to hint that you might be kind of pro-choice, even!—to get some swing votes and, once in office, to go to town trying to dismantle women’s rights. Conservative “feminism” is just another iteration of the same theme.