The recent release of Sex and the City II has inspired a wave of insipid think-pieces musing on the decline of feminism. How, these writers ask, could a programme — and now a film — which exalts the idea of autonomous womanhood promote characters with the emotional intelligence of 13-year-old girls? Yet in their own absurd way, these characters are a cultural expression of the bankruptcy of mainstream, politicised feminism — an authoritarian creed which has infantilised and ultimately alienated the women it purports to liberate.
For any woman who has tired of the enforced homogeneity of mainstream feminism, the emergence of a self-described “conservative feminism” in the US should come as a breath of fresh air. An increasingly vocal group of female voters, led by a record number of female Republicans standing in the summer primaries, are challenging popular assumptions of women as a voting bloc, modernising the Republican Party and provoking a long-overdue debate over the nature of feminism.
From former Hewlett Packard chief operating officer Carly Fiorina to South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, outsider female candidates are taking on the male establishment of their own party — or as Nikki Haley calls them, the “good ol’ boys”. These confident, self-made women neither apologise for their gender nor believe it should determine their politics. Rhetorically, they appeal to the American ideals of self-reliance, entrepreneurialism and a passion for pushing boundaries — a message to which women of various backgrounds can relate. Sarah Palin — whose weaknesses as a candidate are many and obvious — nevertheless astutely identified this trend and has thrown her rhetorical and financial support behind a number of these so-called “mama grizzlies”.
So why the sudden onslaught of conservative women? After the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, American women were statistically more inclined to sympathise with Democrats, who embraced Women’s Lib and made a legislative commitment to issues such as equal pay, sexual harassment and abortion rights. By stridently promoting “traditional family values”, many Republican politicians of the post-feminist era actively alienated the rising number of independent, working women by ignoring their particular challenges.
Today, nearly 60 per cent of American women work, and while the Republican Party remains strongly socially conservative, mainstream Republicans are supportive of female social equality. So it shouldn’t be surprising that women voters, and particularly the professional women who tend to run for political office, would be attracted by the party’s emphasis on small government and entrepreneurialism. And although women remain statistically more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, the increasing presence of women at Tea Party demonstrations and Republican rallies indicates a rising trend of politically assertive conservative women.
Although a number of the high-profile Republican women running for national office oppose abortion, conservative feminists should not make the same mistake as mainstream feminist organisations such as the National Organisation for Women and treat this single issue as a deal-breaker. One of mainstream feminism’s greatest failures has been to deny women the right to hold their own opinions about abortion without being branded anti-feminist. Conservatives should differentiate themselves by eschewing demands for ideological conformity. Moreover, as social conservative issues are not predicted to be a significant factor in the 2010 elections, Republicans may risk alienating women swing voters by identifying too strongly with Sarah Palin’s agenda, which she has sought to equate with “conservative feminism” itself.
The Republican women standing for office would do their party, and their sex, a service by embracing the heterogeneity of American women, and arguing that the very best tradition of conservatism is one which embraces individual freedom for all people.