Roar writer Tara Sahgal on the issues posed by conservative feminism.
In political theory, feminism and conservatism are viewed as dichotomous in nature – probably because of the historical differences in left-wing and right-wing ideology. Feminism has largely been affiliated with the Left (which is seen as more prone to equality), while conservatism has been affiliated with the Right (which is seen as more prone to inequality). However, in recent years this dichotomy has been questioned, most notably by conservative female leaders who claim to better represent women than feminists. While it is undeniable that the presence of these leaders in the political sphere automatically enhances women’s descriptive representation, it’s important to understand that this does not necessarily translate into women’s substantive representation (or the promotion of women’s interests, which is a key feminist objective).
A Feminism of Choice?
Feminism, in its third wave, is defined as gender equality between men and women and the emancipation of women in all spheres. It has historically been associated with left-wing politics, with women pushing for the legalisation of abortion and paid family leave as key identifiable policy goals (among others). Social conservatism, on the other hand, has been associated with anti-abortion stances and a strong belief in femininity and the traditional role of women in society, while economic conservatism has tended to promote individualism and reject identity-based politics.
Conservative “feminism” is largely understood in terms of “choice” feminism, or the idea that women should be able to make their own decisions – even if traditionally anti-feminist – and should not be discriminated against for the same. Despite many conservatives disassociating themselves from the feminist label, they often act as gender-conscious actors, and this is reflected in their politics – for example, a large focus is placed by many female conservative leaders on the gender pay gap and the need for an equality of opportunity.
This brings us to the crucial question of why certain issues are promoted while others are overlooked. Arguably, these gender-conscious interests are advanced because they align with conservative interests (and broader market-based neoliberal values), and not necessarily with the interests of women. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that in the conservative mind, emphasis is perpetually placed on individualism rather than structuralism. There is a sense of dismissal of systemic discrimination and structural inequalities that hinder the fair attainment of equality of opportunity. This directly contradicts the values of feminism, and in particular third-wave feminism, which focuses on dismantling oppressive structures and the inequalities perpetuated by them while simultaneously adopting an intersectional approach to politics and policy ideation. Conservative female leaders thus end up representing conservative interests rather than the larger interests of women – their politics are exclusionary, ignoring the role of power relations and resource allocation in society, and can make it difficult to address more radical feminist concerns.
Contemporary examples from conservative female leadership
Across the globe, conservative female leaders attempt to address “women’s issues”, sometimes even claiming the feminist title – but is that claim enough to make them feminist? Is it a sign of a newly emerging “conservative feminism”? No, primarily because these leaders are not intersectional in their approach: Ivanka Trump and Theresa May are prime examples of the same. Intersectionality forms the core of third-wave feminism; Trump and May have both called themselves feminists, yet their political actions imply otherwise.
Ivanka is, of course, closely tied to her father and his views – which are already inherently problematic and anti-feminist, to say the least. She has also rallied alongside political candidates who openly deny women’s right to abortion. Conversely, Theresa May has had an actionable impact on furthering women’s interests through her various roles in the British Parliament: she has notably supported gender pay gap reporting, shared parental leave and the expansion of laws against domestic violence. However, she has also supported the Democratic Unionist Party (which has archaic views on abortion) and MPs accused of sexual abuse. Most importantly, in line with her harsh immigration policy, she has led the indefinite detention (and alleged abuse) of pregnant women at Yarl’s Wood. It is evident that Trump and May only promote women’s interests when they fit into conservative ideals, and are arguably examples of a conservative appropriation of feminism in the name of self-interest, rather than of leaders shaping a new feminism.
Do they want to be Feminist?
Unlike Trump and May, most conservative female leaders are averse to the feminist movement, its history and successes, and the feminist label itself. Among others, Smriti Irani (part of the Hindu-right in India) is an example of this: despite breaking gender stereotypes and voicing support for victims of sexual abuse, she openly rejects the term “feminism” and continues to espouse various discriminatory and anti-feminist views. This reveals a pattern: female conservative leaders either disassociate from feminism as a whole and disregard the need for structural change, or fail to be intersectional while placing their focus on individualism in response to collective problems – which goes against traditional feminist goals and beliefs. It is therefore more fitting to view them as “gender-conscious actors” (an idea put forth by various scholars) rather than feminists, only representing the interests of certain women.
To put it simply, there are various factors that make it problematic to conflate conservatism with feminism. The nature of conservative politics is inherently exclusionary (and thereby anti-feminist), and its leaders are often averse to the feminist movement in its entirety. It is better to study conservative beliefs and actions as an attempt to analyse differences among women and women’s interests, rather than to re-interpret feminist history and contemporary goals – which could potentially dilute the power of the movement.