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Conservative Feminism: An Oxymoron?

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The slightly higher-than-usual numbers of female candidates this election season’s crop of increasingly right-wing challenger candidates has created possibly the most irritating meme of 2010---that we’re looking at new kind of feminism, a “conservative feminism”. Never mind that this crop of politicians doesn’t actually have any feminist positions outside of the narrow belief that they personally should have power despite being female. Never mind that there's nothing new about women using anti-feminism to advance their own interests. Never mind that actual feminists find the whole thing incredibly tedious. The idea that electing a few female conservatives to office should be the apex of feminism has even made its way into the editorial pages of the New York Times.

To be fair, there’s more to these conservative women’s arguments that they’re a new breed of feminist than simply pointing to their own briefcases and saying, “So there.” The whole strategy of declaring obviously anti-feminist women to be “feminist” was started by anti-choice groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and Feminists for Life, and it was popularized by Sarah Palin. The argument is that there could be such a thing as “pro-life feminism,” i.e. a feminism grounded in the idea that women should be forced to bear children against their will. 

Common sense would demand that one not agree that there could be a kind of feminism that would declare the entire female sex incapable of handling the right to bodily autonomy.  But the anti-choice feminists swear they have an argument! The argument is that Abortion Is Bad For Women, because it thwarts women from their true desires---so deep and true that many women don’t even realize they have them---to bring every pregnancy to term, no matter how much they think they don’t want it. They marshal all sorts of made-up evidence to support this argument, claiming incorrectly that abortion causes depression and breast cancer and probably ingrown toenails. The conclusion is that women have to be forced to bear children against their will for their own good. They hope that if you squint at it sideways, this argument looks kind of like feminism. After all, real feminists talk about real things that hurt women, so fake feminists pretending that things that don’t hurt women do could fool someone. 

The idea that abortion has to be banned to protect women fails on two counts---both because of history, and because there’s nothing feminist about suggesting that women are too stupid to handle basic rights. Let’s take these one at a time.

The notion that banning abortion can be expected to save women’s health and well-being is simply and bluntly easy to disprove by looking at what actually happens when you ban abortion---desperate women seek dangerous abortions when safe ones aren’t available. Not only is there a long American history of women ending up disabled or dead from botched self-abortions, but it's still going on all over the world. Unlike the claims from anti-choicers that abortion causes breast cancer or depression, pro-choice evidence showing that illegal abortion drives women to unsafe abortion is absolutely true. The notion that women are better off with serious infections, disablement, or death from safe abortion is so laughable that it’s really not even up for debate.

But setting aside even these historical realities, the argument underpinning anti-choice “feminism” is one based on the very un-feminist belief that women are simply too stupid to know their own minds.  The narrative that suggests that women only think they want abortions, but will see the light if forced to bear children is to paint half of all adults as basically very tall children, except that it’s legal to have sex with them. In the anti-choice view, every single woman who enters an abortion clinic and asks for an abortion is really just a victim of her own stupidity and gullibility, and only after she has the abortion will she see how wrong she was. (They need to believe this so badly they simply overlook the evidence showing that most women who have abortions feel relief, and even those who feel sadness often don’t feel regret.) Any feminism that starts with the premise that women aren’t equal to men, because women are too stupid to make their own decisions, is simply not a kind of feminism. This is definitional---feminism starts with the belief that women are equal to men, especially with regards to intellectual and moral abilities. A feminism that doesn’t accept this is like a humanism that believes that human beings are fundamentally wicked and undeserving of rights---that is, it doesn’t exist.

I can see how this can get confusing. Conservatives put these “women are fundamentally too stupid to make their own decisions” argument in the mouths of women. People expect that anti-feminists would generally distrust what women say, so when we’re being asked to trust what anti-choice women say, it seems a little like it’s not being anti-feminist. Except that we’re being asked to trust women only when they say women are too stupid to be trusted. Never mind that saying, “I’m female, so trust me when I tell you that women are too stupid to be trusted,” is a direct contradiction of itself, a meaningless statement.

If you find yourself getting a headache thinking about it, just remember that’s the point. Anti-feminist women making anti-feminist claims while pretending they’re being feminist is about creating so much confusion about what feminism is that the public just gives up altogether. But what it’s definitely not about is advancing the interests or equality of actual women that aren’t wealthy female conservative politicians.

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