Who Gets to Be a Feminist?

The guardians of feminist purity are not amused by the idea of right-wing girl power. Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes, for example, recently specified that members of the sisterhood may not oppose "reproductive rights" or "labor policies that would empower American women." They should be more open-minded.

Millions of women, for reasons of conscience, cannot bring themselves to support abortion on demand. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, 49 percent of women are pro-life. Even if you are pro-choice (as I am), it is both unsisterly and impractical to organize a "women's" movement that excludes--and often demonizes--half of the American adult female population. After all, there are many other pressing issues: embattled women's groups in oppressive societies like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo are fighting barbaric practices such as child marriage, honor killing, stoning, and genital mutilation. If the women's movement would drop the purity test on abortion it would find millions of Catholic and evangelical women eager to join the next great wave of feminism: the emancipation of women in the developing world.

What about the empowering labor policies? Reasonable people disagree on which practices fit the bill. Traister and Holmes and their like-minded sisters are firm believers in "bureaugamy"--a term coined by the anthropologist Lionel Tiger to describe a society in which women are married to the state. The state provides child care, medical care, and an array of welfare services, and it mandates paid maternity leave, comparable worth, and gender quotas from the sports fields to the science labs, to the boardrooms and in the awarding of contracts. Conservative feminists are unconvinced that Uncle Sam is Mr. Right. They are suspicious of elaborate big-government "pro-woman" policies in advanced bureaugamies such as Norway and Sweden and think American women are faring as well or better in the workplace. For example, the World Economic Forum Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 reports that a far higher percentage of American women hold managerial and executive positions than of Nordic women.

Conservative feminism is pro-woman but male-friendly. If boys are languishing academically, if blue-collar men lose most of the jobs in the recession, or if innocent young men are falsely accused of heinous crimes--as several members of the Duke University Lacrosse team were in 2006, with campus feminists at the head of the mob--conservative feminists will speak out on men's behalf. The feminists now in power in our universities and in Washington see the world differently--as a zero-sum struggle between men and women, in which their job is to fight for women. But that is not the attitude of most women, whether conservative or liberal in political outlook. Men are their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons; when they are in trouble, so are the women who care about them and, in many cases, depend on them.

If conservative women wish to describe themselves as feminists, and if they offer a new model of women's empowerment that large numbers of American women find inspiring, even determined feminist bouncers like Traister and Holmes won't be able to keep them from the party.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar and the director of the W. H. Brady Program at AEI.

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