Why Conservatives Should Embrace Feminism (At Least Partly)

Rarely are the words “conservative” and “feminist” grouped together, except in the context of conservatives rejecting feminism. Controversial right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopolous is notorious for saying that “Feminism is cancer” and bashing feminists as ugly, fat, man-hating lesbians. Conservatives of both sexes, in rejecting the feminist label, often make the promise, “I believe that men and women are equal, I just don’t agree with what the current feminist movement has become.” But if conservatives truly do believe in the equality of the sexes, they aren’t doing a good job of showing it.

This became apparent to me when I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. the first weekend of March. There were two females (including me) and three males in our group from the University of Minnesota. Over the course of one weekend, my female colleague and I received more disturbing comments – coming from conservative men – than I recall receiving during the previous twenty years of my life.

My initial wake-up call came when a man approached me and asked, “Do you smile? Do you ever smile, with teeth?” Politics aside, this is simply a rude thing to ask someone, especially someone you barely know. But this display of poor social etiquette also harkens back to a phenomenon I had thought was a myth: women being told to smile more. For the first time, I understood where feminists were coming from – why aren’t men ever told to smile more? Why is it a woman’s job to smile and to look friendly and approachable? If a woman appears serious, why should that imply she’s a rhymes-with-witch? The exchange reminded me of a remark Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles made while competing on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars: “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.”

The rest of the weekend brought more of the same frustrating interactions. My female colleague overheard comments (which did not sound sarcastic) about women needing to remember their “place” in society. When our group introduced ourselves to a male conference attendee, he shook the hands of the three men in our group, then stopped when he got to my female colleague, despite that her hand was extended. He proceeded to talk only to my three male colleagues, almost as if us two women did not exist.

I could go on and on about the irritating things I saw and heard at the conference, but my point is that the sexist undertones of that weekend drove me away from my supposed political allies. Not all conservatives treat women that way, but those who do are contributing to the bad rap conservatives get. Among other labels – racist, homophobic, transphobic, white-supremacist – conservatives are often branded as misogynistic, and my experience being a woman at CPAC made me wonder if liberals are on to something in that characterization.

I’m not saying that conservative men (and women) need to display their solidarity with women by publicly bemoaning the supposed wage gap and fastening “This is what a feminist looks like” pins to their backpacks. But a little reflection on whether they harbor any internalized sexism might do conservatives some good.

Conservatives need to demonstrate that they can reject the feminist label without treating women like crap. Treating women respectfully, as equals, will prove that Republicans can be “pro-woman,” too – a title that has typically been reserved for the Democratic party. Living up to the stereotype of the “anti-feminist conservative male” only feeds the left’s criticism of right-wingers and deepens our current political polarization, neither of which will foster unity or promote political and social progress.