The Rise of the Female Right

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What Sarah Palin’s candidacy says about the growing role of women in conservative politics.

By Ronnee Schreiber

The historic candidacy of Sarah Palin as the first female Republican vice presidential candidate came to an end on November 4, 2008. While some immediately turned to debating her effect on the campaign, others began speculating about her plans for the future. These are both important questions, but they offer only a narrow assessment of the significance of her run for a place in the White House. Palin’s candidacy provides a timely opportunity to consider the broader context of conservative-movement politics, since she exemplifies an ever-growing crusade by women who promote conservative political goals. 

Although Palin was not in the end embraced by Democrats, nor by most Hillary Clinton supporters—nor by me—she energized many social conservatives and had right-wing women’s organizations singing her praises. The Alaska governor reminds us of the centrality of women to conservative politics. She embodies the under-reported but important phenomenon of women seeking to convince others that the Republican Party cares about women’s interests. 

These efforts appear to have gained traction with at least some women voters. While exit polls indicated that women overall favored Barack Obama by a margin of 13 percentage points, John McCain drew more support from white women voters, winning 53 percent of their votes. Indeed, McCain’s belief that a socially conservative, politically successful woman could help the Republican Party was, in general, an insightful one. Conservative women have at times been dismissed as pawns of right-wing men, but this characterization belies the prominence of conservative women and their contributions to politics. Over the past three decades they have been organizing into national groups and running for office. Palin represents the growing influence of these women and cautions us to recognize that women’s interests are not necessarily synonymous with feminist ones. 

The history of the United States is rich with examples of women organizing to oppose feminist activism and to engage in conservative and right-wing activities. Female activists challenged other women’s attempts to win suffrage, formed into Women of the Ku Klux Klan, and perhaps mostly famously, led a successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Continuing in these footsteps are nationally prominent groups like the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and Concerned Women for America (CWA), which encourage their conservative soul sisters to speak the Republican line on issues like abortion, affirmative action, tax cuts, same-sex marriage, and tort reform—as women and for women. 

The socially conservative CWA was founded by Beverly LaHaye in 1979 to take on the ERA. Like STOP-ERA founder Phyllis Schlafly, LaHaye and her followers felt it was critical to have women speaking out about what they perceived to be the dangers of codifying anti-sex-discrimination language in the U.S. Constitution. Today, CWA is one of the largest grassroots women’s public-policy organizations in the United States. It claims 500,000 members, has chapters in every state, and also features a large network of local prayer chapters. As conservative religious women, its members and leaders fight against the legalization of abortion, rights for gays and lesbians, and the proliferation of pornography, while advocating for abstinence-only education and prayer in schools. 

CWA’s economically conservative counterpart, IWF, touts free-market ideals, urges tax cuts for individuals and businesses, and challenges the necessity of government-supported social programs. Originally founded by a group of women who supported Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, IWF boasts outgoing Second Lady Lynne Cheney and right-wing radio personality Laura Ingraham among its advisors. Its current president, Michelle Bernard, is also a political commentator for MSNBC and exemplifies the group’s media acumen. Through their own well-established operations and their connections to other conservative activists, CWA and IWF shape conservative movement politics. For example, the former president of IWF, Nancy Pfotenhauer, was a senior policy advisor for the McCain campaign.

The mission and goals of these groups are consistent with many other conservative institutions and actors. Yet they offer something unique by consciously positioning themselves as representatives of women’s interests. Since these activists must also challenge feminism and feminist claims to speak on behalf of women, they engage in “femball,” a word coined by IWF co-founder Anita Blair. For CWA and IWF, playing “femball” means talking about conservative issues from the perspective of women, and having women publicly make political claims. 

Advocating antifeminist views is nothing new to the conservative movement. It can be difficult, however, to do so convincingly when polls show that a majority of American women praise “women’s rights” groups for their ability to usher in pay-equity laws, fight for access to reproductive-health services, and help pass federal laws against violence against women. But CWA and IWF are savvy. They recognize that these same women are uncomfortable identifying themselves as “feminists” and are sometimes torn about issues like legal abortion and women working full-time when they have young children at home. In recognition of the complexity of women’s views, CWA and IWF acknowledge that some good has come from feminists in the past, but charge that the contemporary feminist movement has gone too far, become too radical, and only represents a handful of those outside the mainstream of the American citizenry. For example, in offering a post-mortem on the presidential election and Sarah Palin, a blogger for IWF’s new sister organization, Independent Women’s Voice (IWV) commented: “[F]or many of us Sarah Palin has been the brightest spot in this year’s election. She gives us hope for the future. She’s great because she’s her own woman, doesn’t kowtow to those angry and aging feminists who claim to speak for women.”

Similarly, CWA responded to Palin’s nomination with this statement: “For years the feminist movement has acknowledged for leadership only those women who embrace a radical agenda. How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women … Take that feminists.” 

Chastising feminists, however, will not necessarily mobilize women or convince them that conservative women’s organizations will work on their behalf. To that end, CWA and IWF also talk about their agendas in terms of “women’s interests.” For example, as social conservatives, CWA’s opposition to legal abortion reflects its beliefs about the sanctity of fetal life. But it also argues that abortion—and most forms of contraception—hurt women. CWA refers to women as “abortion’s second victims.” CWA also claims that having an abortion greatly increases a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. Although the connection between abortion and breast cancer has been disputed by many researchers, the promotion of this idea may cause some women to think twice about following through with the procedure. By speaking about abortion in terms of women’s health, CWA tackles pro-choice advocates head on. After all, it has historically been supporters of legal abortion who have argued for attention to women’s mental and physical health. 

Although IWF’s agenda differs from that of CWA, it also frames its conservative goals in terms of women’s interests. For example, IWF relates “tort reform” to the well-being of women. For IWF, tort reform means limiting or restricting litigation and damage awards in cases involving medical malpractice. IWF charges that because of the large monetary sums often at stake in lawsuits, American companies have now become reluctant to develop new products such as contraception. According to IWF, the passage of tort-reform laws would make businesses more willing to produce and invest in more (and presumably better) birth control options—an outcome that would benefit women. Here, IWF plays a unique and important role in conservative-movement politics. No other conservative groups call on women to take up the cause of tort reform for their own good. In so doing, IWF provides a way for conservatives to appeal directly to women while promoting the belief that regulation of private companies should be limited. 

Like Palin’s nomination, the efforts of these groups show us that conservative women have power and political significance. But Palin’s candidacy also demonstrates the success of the feminist movement in opening doors for women in politics. Palin herself clearly acknowledged this in her speech accepting the nomination, saying, “It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.” Of course, Palin has feminists to thank for that, but that will not stop conservative women from making their own strides toward quite different political goals.

Ronnee Schreiber C’84 is an associate professor of political science at San Diego State University. She is the author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics

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