Faux Feminists

The GOP schemes to co-opt the women’s movement

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The Republican Party has a problem: To evict Bill Clinton from the White House this fall, Bob Dole will have to draw a much larger chunk of the female vote than George Bush did in 1992, when women showed up in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. But to accomplish that, the party would be forced to alienate its most fervent supporters on the right.

The solution? Ignore ‘em, beat ‘em and join ‘em. Despite the yawning gender gap, which recent polls predict will become a chasm by election day, no GOP politician dares to dirty his hands trying to speak on “women’s issues.” Instead, that task has fallen to what Elayne Rapping, writing in On the Issues (Spring 1996), calls a “women’s auxiliary”—the female partners, employees, and friends of the male right, who have been busy impersonating the force that has traditionally spoken for women: the Democrat-aligned feminist movement.

Denigrating feminism is, of course, a long-standing conservative tradition. Groups like the Independent Women’s Forum barely try to conceal their ties to the Republican Party as they blithely issue one press release after another bashing feminist research. Other groups, like the innocuous-sounding Pacific Research Institute, pretend nonpartisanship while trumpeting their own “objective” research, which, naturally, always seems to back the conservative social agenda. The message from both these branches is obvious: women are just fine, thank you very much, and feminists are just a bunch of outdated whiners.

The real novelty in the Republican camp this year is the prominence of a number of GOP spear carriers who, claiming to speak for “real” women, have simply co-opted the term feminist. For example, Rita Simon, founder of the Women’s Freedom Network (WFN), told Rapping she started her organization “because she was distressed by what she saw as two dominant, extremist poles of gender politics—the Phyllis Schlafly conservative view and the [Catharine MacKinnon] ‘radical feminist’ view.” While there is an admittedly large field between those two poles, Simon—who considers herself a “real” feminist—has pitched her tent in decidedly conservative territory. The WFN board of directors includes such right-wing darlings as former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Washington Times columnist Mona Charen, but nary a member who would admit to liberal leanings.

Ironically, one of the factors allowing these faux feminists to claim that they, not the National Organization for Women, speak for American women is the contemporary feminist movement’s own attempts to create a “big tent.” Forced to acknowledge their own -isms (racism, classism, heterosexism) in the 1980s, feminists today are leery of excluding anyone at all. The result is a movement in which almost everyone—from anti-porn MacKinnonites to porn-producing dominatrixes—is accorded a “place at the table.” In the ensuing melee, there is nothing to stop conservative, Republican-connected women from claiming the feminist title and using it for their own ends. Indeed, that is exactly what Christina Hoff Sommers and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, both connected to the WFN, have done—to their great personal gain.

The mainstream media, for their part, can’t get enough of these slick new conservatives. As Caryl Rivers writes in Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News (Columbia University Press, 1996), the evolution of journalism from a trade for the working class to a career for the middle and upper classes has created an atmosphere in which “it’s chic . . . to embrace the neoconservative creed.” Currently, counterfeminists are the chicest of the chic. The New York Times, just to name one source, featured some of the attractive young members of this “opinion elite” on the cover of its magazine last year, and the Times recently published in one weekend not one but two essays by Dan Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren.

No matter how much newsprint the counterfeminists’ rhetoric consumes, however, it’s doubtful that they can do much of anything to swing the vote of the female electorate back to the Republican side—unless Dole picks a woman as his running mate.  Women want more than funky theories from their politicians.  They want to know that they will have a safety net if they lose their jobs, and that child and elder care will be available, and—overwhelmingly—that abortion will remain legal.  As Russ Hoyle writes in the Hartford Advocate (March 7, 1996), the effect of the Republican Party’s unwillingness to even consider women’s priorities is already apparent within the party itself, where moderate women like Tanya Melich, author of The Republican War Against Women:  An Insider’s Report from Behind the Lines (Bantam, 1996), are either fleeing the ranks or thinking hard about doing so.

Thanks for that place at the table, boys, but the menu is looking a little thin right now.  We think we’ll pass.