Angry cries of “where are the feminists?” resound every time a powerful woman offends women on the left. Never is this veiled accusation of hypocrisy more triumphantly leveled than during election seasons, when pundits on the right luxuriate in an imaginary gotcha by pointing out that feminists do not support conservative women politicians or thinkers.
The latest variation on the theme concerns Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the polarizing author and activist whose work harshly critiques Islam. “Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be the perfect feminist hero,” National Review editor Rich Lowry opined in a New York Post essay last week. Alas, feminists cannot countenance Hirsi Ali’s perceived virulent Islamophobia. “Our society, and especially the left, tends to reflexively celebrate dissenters,” Lowry writes, “But some heretics are more welcome than others.” Lowry's imagination omits the idea that someone can be correct about the problem (namely: the abuse of women and girls under brutal religious regimes) and wrong about the solution (that is, militant atheism). Feminists either support women with purportedly feminist aims or they are dishonest ideologues, and there is nothing more to it.
We went through the same routine during Sarah Palin’s inauspicious run for vice president. Less than three weeks after Palin's candidacy was announced, Cathy Young declared in The Wall Street Journal that “Left-wing feminists have a hard time dealing with strong, successful conservative women in politics such as Margaret Thatcher,” and thus “Sarah Palin seems to have truly unhinged more than a few, eliciting a stream of vicious, often misogynist invective.” Young went on to claim that “You'd think that, whether or not they agree with her politics, feminists would at least applaud Mrs. Palin as a living example of one of their core principles: a woman's right to have a career and a family.” But feminists were not interested in praising Palin strictly for being a woman. There were actual politics at stake, and it would’ve been an ridiculously dangerous move to substitute identity affinities for political analysis. Palin was, in retrospect, in no sense qualified for the position she was up for, and it is an article of fortune, not misogyny, that she hasn't had the opportunity to run the country for the past seven years.
There have been others, perhaps most recently Joni Ernst, whose legions of Republican fans sprung to her defense when feminist author Jessica Valenti criticized her among conservative women politicians. Now that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has signaled intent to enter the 2016 race, we can expect the same stream of inanity demanding that feminists support Fiorina simply because she is a woman, notwithstanding the fact that she would make a better “Shark Tank” swindler than president.
On some level, conservatives' interest in feminist political support for their own women candidates is clearly cheap. Their concern isn’t movement solidarity. Rather, it's a double rhetorical move: to portray their candidates as mavericks who endure unfair criticism while bucking the establishment; and to smear the left as hypocritical.
But supposing there is an ounce of sincerity to any confusion as to why feminists do not rally around figures like Palin, Ernst, and Fiorina, it is worth putting the matter to rest before we spend another news cycle on it.
Begin with the usual caveats. Not all feminists are the same. No governing body of feminism controls who can adopt the moniker and who cannot. Sarah Palin can call herself a feminist with the same legitimacy as anyone else, and the work of hashing out precisely what each self-described feminist means by the appellation is complicated. Feminists do not rally around conservative or reactionary figures like Palin, Ernst, and Fiorina precisely because those candidates' personal gains are apolitical. It's excellent to hear that Sarah Palin has equal time for her family and job, just like it's good enough news that CEO positions are open to women, even those as politically unpalatable as Carly Fiorina. But neither circumstance offers even a smidgen of systematic change for the vast majority of women further down the socioeconomic ladder.
However often this fact is obscured, movement feminism is about systematic gains for women—that is, using politics to change structures that make women less free than men. This could mean a variety of things: legally requiring paid maternity leave so that when women have children they don’t stumble into poverty; enacting laws that prevent employers from discriminating against pregnant workers; or creating robust welfare programs that will lift women, who are disproportionately poor, out of poverty. In each of these cases, politically actionable tweaks to systems—either labor law or social insurance—would represent massive gains for women qua women, in materially quantifiable ways. This is largely the work of movement feminism.
Conservative candidates such as Palin, Ernst, and Fiorina tend to oppose these measures, which militate against the interests of business and small government. Despite success as women with high public profiles, they nonetheless oppose the political and economic betterment of women on the whole. Individual successes cannot begin to redress systematic failures, and confusing one for the other can be poisonous to pro-woman politics. Movement feminism is about repairing broken systems, not inserting token women into prominent positions while anti-woman structures lumber on under a more feminine guise.
It is a rather anti-feminist position to insist that feminists (or anyone, really) take it easy on conservative women just because they’re women. The feminist attitude requires us to take candidates and public intellectuals seriously based on the merit of their ideas, regardless of whether they are men or women. To accord some reprieve from scrutiny to women candidates strictly because of their gender is to presume that, on some level, their ideas are secondary to their sex, which, contrary to prevailing conservative notions, is not at all in the spirit of feminism. By criticizing women intellectuals and politicians whose ideas are opposed to feminist politics, we’re showing them respect: We're taking them seriously enough to reject them. Women aren’t harmless, and recognizing that means acknowledging that women politicians can do all the damage men can do.