The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America

The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America

by Elinor Burkett

ISBN: 9780684852027

Publisher Scribner

Published in Calendars/Women's Interest

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Through the Looking Glass

It wasn't until the congressional elections of 1994 that I squarely confronted any serious chinks in my feminist mythology. That year, women's history of an unexpected -- almost shocking -- sort was made, or remade, virtually without notice. I might have missed it myself had I not happened to tune into C-Span one night when it was broadcasting a seminar for freshman members of the 104th Congress sponsored by two right-wing think tanks. Among those freshmen gathered at the Orioles' stadium in Baltimore were seven women -- by far the most Republican women ever elected to Congress in a single year. Yet they weren't waving feminist banners over this milestone. Rather, they were crumpling any such banners and stomping on them. "There's not a femi-nazi among us!" crowed Rep-elect Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. She was making that boast to Rush Limbaugh, whom she had praised as her ideological muse. She had just handed him a plaque designed for him by the seven neophytes. It read "Rush was Right."

Who were these women, and how had they swept into power with so little fanfare? The latter question was easy to answer. Their stealth ascendance could be attributed to the fact that feminists were horrified by them and had no desire to train a spotlight on them, while the liberal news media were too busy noting the sharp falloff in new congresswomen from the Democratic party, the supposed haven for all things female, to try to explain the less tidy, opposite phenomenon happening on the other side of the political divide.

Indeed, these Republican congresswomen confounded expectations not only in their numbers, but also in their postures. They were not moderate Republicans, centrists in pumps and pearls reaching out from the right to grab hold of the same middle ground that Bill Clinton was grasping from the left. Quite the opposite, the group included Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who advocated the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and insisted on being called "Congressman." Linda Smith of Washington denounced the League of Women Voters, which she called the "League of Women Vipers," as too liberal. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, who proposed the creation of modern-day concentration camps for drug dealers while mayor of Charlotte, regularly invoked God's wrath against her adversaries. With the exception of Sue Kelly of New York, the distaff freshmen disdained the Congressional Women's Caucus, although they insisted that they would find time for freshman weekly Bible study.

I was tempted to follow feminist tradition and write these women off as pawns of men or unenlightened slobs trying to force all females but themselves back into the kitchen. Alas, truth intervened. These women were independent enough to buck even the males of their own party, and -- even by feminist standards -- they were positively spunky. Cubin once treated her male colleagues in the Wyoming state legislature to homemade cookies baked in the shape of penises. Enid Waldholtz of Utah arrived at the Capitol pregnant and promptly set up a nursery in her office. When Chenoweth's congressional opponent ran a series of Thelma-and-Louise ads accusing her of extremism, she countered with spots vowing to "show those boys in Washington a thing or two."

To a woman who came of age during the heyday of modern feminism, it didn't make sense. In my mythology -- mainstream feminist mythology, it's fair to say -- women like Chenoweth, Cubin, Myrick and company seemed like natural feminists; yet they actually bragged about their aversion to the very movement that had helped blast open the doors of Congress to them.

The contradiction nagged at me. What was going on in America? I wanted to pass these women off as an anomaly, but I had already become uncomfortable at the frequency with which feminists were writing off distasteful realities as anomalous. So I took off my rose-colored feminist glasses and began a survey of the landscape of American womanhood, without blame, wishful thinking or disdain. Suddenly, I found women challenging feminist mythology everywhere. Young women, twentysomethings who'd been raised with all the advances of feminism and whose parents had eschewed all manner of blue and pink distinctions, were marrying young, and taking their husbands' names. Their older sisters, who had broken new ground for women, were giving up six-figure salaries to stay home and raise their children. Christian women who were supposed to exercise those homemaking skills were lobbying on Capitol Hill against a broad range of feminist-supported liberal programs. Bright, energetic women were joining the staffs of the American Enterprise Institute, the American Spectator and other bastions of the far right to work for causes I'd always believed no self-respecting independent woman could support. Black women claiming Malcolm X as their inspiration were running for Congress as Republicans. And, as the American economy bred anxiety from Maine to California, women who had spent decades doing battle for women's rights and progressive causes were suddenly questioning whether the old answers even belonged among the multiple-choice options on the new test.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.

My mother, Anna, was the woman Betty Friedan had in mind when she wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. One of the first female graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, Anna was bright, curious and bored out of her mind staying home to raise her two daughters. She kept herself busy helping my father in his business and working with various civic groups, but I always wondered why she hadn't followed her early dream and gone to medical school. She refused to satisfy my curiosity. "I guess it just wasn't important enough to me," she responded dismissively whenever I broached the topic. My father was equally unhelpful. All he could say was that my mother had never brought up the idea in the years after the depression, when they could have afforded the luxury.

The question hung over our household as my sister and I grew up, and it was resolved, in an odd way, when we came of age, and headed for the type of career my mother had forsaken. I thought I was following the advice my father had given me explicitly: Don't worry about getting married and having children. Go to school. Find a career. Make something of yourself. Only years later did I understand that I was also following the advice my mother had given me less overtly: Don't end up like me.

Entering college in 1964, I joined a wave of other women who had also tasted their mothers' frustration and forged it into a weapon against a nation that had forgotten its own women. Simply by asking the question "What about women?" we reimagined America and stormed Washington, Bismarck, Sacramento and every possible political center with scores of demands, from equal wages to safe streets. We created a new language and wove it into the lives of the next generation. We rewrote the nation's understanding of its past in the hope of reshaping its future.

The shape of that future seemed absolutely, glaringly clear to us: Women would discover their potential, throw off the shackles of outmoded roles and oppressive stereotypes and take their rightful places in politics, science, business and the arts. Men might balk and struggle to retain their supremacy, but in the end, they would either grow to appreciate the richness of equality or be vanquished by the power of national sisterhood. Young women and their brothers would grow up in a world in which Johnnie would feel free to dance to Stravinsky and Susi could gravitate toward welding. And with women in a position of full equality, women's nature -- women's sensitivity and intuitiveness -- would make America a kinder and gentler place.

Certainty was at the heart of our movement, as it is at the heart of every revolutionary, or would-be revolutionary, tide. Young, educated, privileged white women, we never questioned our authority to speak for all American women. We never asked ourselves whether the Bastille we were attempting to storm might be a living room which some woman had lovingly decorated, or a church that offered her comfort.

That certainty radically redefined how women are seen in America. Three decades after Betty Friedan touched a national nerve with The Feminine Mystique, girls are no longer consigned to home economics while boys trudge to woodworking and shop. No newspaper would dare divide its Help Wanted section into male and female categories. No university would refuse to promote a faculty member simply because she was a woman.

Today more bachelor's and master's degrees are awarded to women than to men. In 1996, women made up more than half the freshman class at Yale Medical School and 45 percent of the graduating class of its law school. In the past ten years alone, the number of female executive vice presidents of businesses has more than doubled, while the number of female senior vice presidents rose 75 percent. Women now own 40 percent of all retail and service businesses, employing a staggering 15.5 million people. The year Friedan published her seminal work, only fourteen women served in the United States Congress; by 1996, the number had risen to fifty-six, and female candidates are winning their races for political office at the same rate as their male counterparts.

Violence against women has hardly disappeared, but it is no longer the sort of taboo which made the women who appeared at the first speak-out against rape in New York feminist heroines. Dozens of laws that kept women from credit, divorce, control over their own bodies and choices in housing or employment have vanished into the dustbin of history. And virtually no one questions what three decades ago seemed like revolutionary doctrines: equal pay for equal work and equal access to jobs.

While no rational person could claim that a female nirvana has been created in Peoria or Seattle, American women think differently about their lives now than they did in the 1950s, and so do American men. Few girls grow up without the widest sense of personal options in the world. Few grown women don't know that they have the right to get angry, get a job, or get divorced. Measured against three millennia of women's history, the progress has been breathtaking.

Yet the same certainty which fueled that progress seems to have distanced feminism from the very women it purports to serve. While more than half of the nation's women believe that a strong women's movement is important to their lives, two-thirds refuse to call themselves feminists. Even young college women shy away from the label, only one-fifth expressing any willingness to be identified with the movement. In the public mind, feminists have become grotesque caricatures: man-hating harridans trying to divorce women from full partnership with the men they love. American women have tarred feminism with every negative from "doctrinaire" to "irrelevant."

It was this fact that kept tugging at me in the months after the 1994 election, as I began to think about the new Republican congresswomen, as I tried to make sense of the fact that corporate executives and bankers are giving up their jobs to raise their children, and that GenX-ers are hailing Newt Gingrich with the enthusiasm my generation reserved for Che Guevara. I knew what the pat feminist explanation was: None of that is true; it's all an invention of woman-hating researchers and reporters. Or, alternatively: Yes, it's true; look how male supremacists have squashed all the progress we'd won.

Both answers seemed glib. Both answers seemed clichéd. Statistical analyses told me nothing; the numbers have been twisted so often that they are more useful as patterns for fried snacks than for information. I decided to go on the road and check the pulse of the American woman.

Before I began this quest, I had never actually talked to any woman who refused to call herself a feminist, and conservative women were more remote from my experience than were, say, women journalists and academics in Paris, Tokyo or Buenos Aires. Everyone I knew criticized the government, but always for being too inactive, never for being too big. Everyone I knew believed in affirmative action, rigid separation of church and state and gay rights. No one I knew seriously considered the possibility that abortion should not be an inviolable right.

I was aware that there were people who disagreed with these views, but I also knew that they were the pawns and playthings of the "ruling class," and were indifferent to the plight of the poor, intolerant of diversity and willing to level entire countries to maintain American hegemony over the world. I didn't actually know any of this firsthand, of course, because America is not so much a heterogeneous society as a patchwork of homogeneous societies living together cheek by jowl yet remarkably isolated from one another.

But I was arrogant enough to be sure I knew what to expect when I entered the offices of the Independent Women's Forum to meet Barbara Ledeen. After all, I'd done my homework, both about the woman and about the group, which billed itself as a political home for women uncomfortable at either Phyllis Schlafly's or Gloria Steinem's end of the mythical spectrum. Ledeen had worked in the Pentagon under Reagan, and her husband Michael had been one of the architects of Reagan's foreign policy. She supported Virginia Military Institute's single-sex policy and the abolition of affirmative action. She opposed the Violence Against Women Act and a wide range of special educational programs targeted to young girls. So predicting what Barbara would be like hardly seemed like rocket science. Pearls and pumps, I assumed. Country club. Haughty superiority.

The woman who burst from the warren of rooms in the basement of the townhouse off Dupont Circle was wearing an Indian cotton dress and black boots. Her graying black hair was fashionably wild. She looked more like me than most of the women with whom I've marched arm in arm down Pennsylvania Avenue at rallies for abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and a dozen other liberal causes.

Her resume was straight out of the same New Left handbook as mine. Fed up with racism and imperialism, Ledeen had given up on America by 1970 and took off to look for a "civilized country." She didn't see much alternative. An internship at the Washington Post had soured Barbara on journalism. ("The cozy establishment relationship with the media pissed me off," she said. "They went to the same parties. They slept with each other's wives. It was disgusting.") Although she'd been a prelaw student in college, she knew she couldn't possibly enter the bar. ("I couldn't swear to uphold laws that were horrible and racist.")

So Barbara flew off to Europe with a backpack and an empty wallet, convinced the worst crime in the world was hypocrisy -- and that remaining in a country she found abhorrent would be hypocritical. She sold paintings in the market in Zagreb, fled Edinburgh when it got too cold and wound up teaching English in Milan. She avoided other Americans, pretended she was Canadian and got herself engaged to a Spanish communist who was going to take her away with him to Cuba.

A cliché of the 1960s.

A leader of the conservative 1990s.

"I don't get it," I muttered weakly. I had dressed for our encounter. I looked down at my pumps and pearls with distress. "I was a radical then and I'm a radical now," she responded. "A real radical. Remember, today's establishment used to be antiestablishment. I still am."

I spent hours listening to Ledeen talk and absorbing her pointed attacks on women like me. "Liberal women pretend that they are so concerned about poor women," she said to me one afternoon. "Give me a break. Blue-collar women don't want to put their kids in day care at 6 A.M. They would like to take care of them. They want the choice. The women's movement was supposed to be about choice, but it has never done anything to give these women choices. 'Choice' is our word, not theirs. Choice is not just about abortion. It's about single-sex schools and school choice. It's about having a home-based business so that you can take care of your kids, or having the flexibility to work part-time. Liberals say that affirmative action is about creating opportunity and choice, but affirmative action has never really helped poor people. It's white women who've benefited the most from affirmative action because we were poised to take advantage of it. To the poor we've said, 'Multiply and you'll get government help.' That's not opportunity, and that's not choice."

For Barbara, feminism's emphasis on work outside the home as the sine qua non of fulfillment is nonsense. Most women, and most men, never have a chance to do fulfilling work. Marriage and children form the center of most women's lives, she argued, and feminism had held such occupations and preoccupations in contempt. "I admit that I'm obsessed," she said repeatedly, "but someone has to stand up and say that marriage is important to civilization and that children need two parents."

Barbara agreed with feminists that women were victims; she disagreed only about who was playing the role of victimizer. "Sure some women are victims," she said. "So are some men. But most women don't think of themselves as victims of their husbands or their sons or their boyfriends. They feel victimized by taxes they can't pay and teachers who don't teach and government regulation that penalizes employers who would like to give them flex time."

Predictably, Ledeen and the Independent Women's Forum had been dismissed out of hand by a litany of feminist leaders. In fact, they had been roasted alive. In an article called "The Judas Wives" in the Washington Feminist FaxNet, a weekly newsletter, Martha Burk called them "a pack of she-wolves." Trish Wilson Antonucci dismissed the women involved as "residents of expensively-furnished ivory towers," as if Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan lived in hovels. Susan Faludi, who used her book Backlash to warn of the existence of a low-level conspiracy against women's rights by virtually every segment of American society, called IWF members "pod feminists" and the group part of a "media-assisted invasion of the body of the women's movement: the Invasion of the Feminist Snatchers."

I admit that I was saved from falling into such stereotyping by the quip from Faludi, who is the mistress of the ad feminen attack and has a prodigious talent for disapproval. The gospel according to Faludi, enshrined in her tome, taught that conservative Christian women "always played by their men's rules." Women who were burnt-out, or single and lonely, were victims of the counterassault. Even while declaring that the goal of feminism is "to win women a wider range of experience," she spent 460 pages arguing that any woman who chose experiences of which Faludi herself disapproved had been duped, co-opted or brainwashed.

As I found myself starting to dismiss Barbara Ledeen, I heard in my own thoughts a nasty, patronizing and holier-than-thou arrogance I had always considered the province of Faludi, or at least Rush Limbaugh. I slipped several rungs on my own moral superiority ladder -- and started listening, and remembering. I kept flashing back to a New Yorker cartoon from the late 1960s, a drawing of two well-dressed women talking on the phone about the importance of consciousness-raising groups -- and how glad they were that their maids could work late on Wednesday nights. The truth of that depiction had stung me at the time. It stung me still.

I love feminism like I love an old friend whose flaws I understand thoroughly and intimately. We are bound up by nostalgia and by my respect for a glorious past. But neither blinds me to its flaws. And, to me, nothing reeks more strongly of antifeminism than petty name-calling that does nothing to engage the issues. (As when Gloria Steinem branded Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas a "female impersonator" during Hutchinson's campaign for the Senate.) Nothing exposes the hypocrisy of feminists more than a Faludiesque lack of respect for women they don't agree with, for women who don't work outside their homes, who aren't liberal, alienated from traditional religion, pro-choice and overtly feminist. Feminism "asks that women be free to define themselves -- instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men," Faludi wrote in 1991. But she, and all too many other self-styled feminist luminaries, refuses to grant women the same freedom from definition by feminists.

I concluded that the only way for me, as one person -- as a writer -- to grant American women that freedom, and the only way to understand why so many women had distanced themselves from feminism, was to listen carefully to their voices, to pay attention to their lives, their needs and daily concerns, to try to find myself in the brash conservative women of Generation X, to approach women like Helen Chenoweth with respect, to meet America's women on their own ground and take their pulse.

So, over the past two years, I have traveled across America listening to the voices of women on ranches in North Dakota, in logging towns in Idaho, in congressional offices in Washington, D.C., and on college campuses in Ohio. I've interviewed female candidates at the Libertarian Party convention, followed Republican women on the campaign trail, partied with self-styled hip female GenX-ers and watched Muslim women transform themselves with head coverings. I've quizzed beauticians in Montana about feminism, militia-women in Missouri about abortion, mothers about their struggles with their children's schools and young women with pierced belly buttons at a Christian rock festival in Illinois about affirmative action. I learned, gradually, to listen.

This book is my account of that journey.

It is neither an attack on feminism nor a defense of antifeminism, but a travelogue through the lives of women who are living, and rewriting, feminism -- rarely with protest marches or political tracts, but rather with the choices they make about careers and marriage and child rearing, about balancing family and work, about what they wear, who they watch on television and the last names they use to identify themselves.

What you will see is a stunning, and absolutely ignored, burst of exuberant independence by which, one by one, American women are configuring and reconfiguring their own personal balance between tradition and nontradition. They are forging new relationships to institutions feminism has written off as hopelessly patriarchal. They are rejecting prepackaged doctrines -- religious, secular or feminist -- and treating all ideologies as smorgasbords of ideas and influences, selecting the morsels that fit into their lives and rejecting those that cause them discomfort.

No matter what they call themselves -- feminist or antifeminist, conservative, liberal, independent, religious or secular -- they are rarely eschewing feminism itself. Instead they are repudiating feminism's relentless insistence on theoretical consistency and purity because their lives are messy composites of work and relationships, responsibilities, loyalties, dreams and desires that don't fit neatly into theoretical straitjackets. Feminists preach that the patriarchy oppresses women and gives advantage to anyone with a penis; the women in these pages look at their husbands working on construction crews and in dreary offices, and then at Oprah Winfrey and Katherine Graham, and wonder what reality feminists inhabit. Feminism teaches that men and women are natural antagonists; the women who shared their thoughts with me look to men for comfort when they're lonely or sick or aging. The women's movement urges them to have it all; American women are saying that the price for having it all is simply too high.

But American women are not turning their backs on the ideals of the women's movement, the heart of feminism. Quite the opposite. They are living up to those ideals by deciding for themselves what creates a rich life, by refusing to march in lockstep with anyone -- even their so-called sisters. They might be undermining the feminist dream of a united American sisterhood speaking in a single clear voice, but they are carrying forward the torch at its center, and that flame burns bright in their refusal to live the lives their feminist forebears prescribed for them.

Copyright © 1998 by Elinor Burkett


Excerpted from "The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America" by Elinor Burkett. Copyright © 1999 by Elinor Burkett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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