The Cynical Making of the Poor, Marginalized 'Conservative Woman'

The Cynical Making of the Poor, Marginalized 'Conservative Woman'

“What a historic moment for conservative Christian women,” observed Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance, in a grainy video launching a nationwide big pink bus tour in support of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “We get to sit on the sidelines of history, and witness the confirmation of one of our own—a conservative Christian constitutionalist appointed by President Trump to the Supreme Court.”

Barrett’s ascension to the court, in Nance’s framing, was more than simply a routine appointment, but rather a landmark triumph—not just the securement of a rightward tilt to the Supreme Court, but one ensured by a woman. Nance’s billing of this “historic moment” lines up with how conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee have presented and lauded Barrett as ACB, their very own RBG, a milestone figure and an inspiration. Senator Joni Ernst asked for her advice to young women, while Lindsey Graham announced, “This hearing, to me, is an opportunity to not punch through a glass ceiling, but a reinforced concrete barrier around conservative women.” Meanwhile, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn suggested that liberals opposing Barrett “do not believe that all women deserve to have the opportunity to have a seat at the table. It’s only certain women.”

But it was the Republican’s own process of exclusion that created the archetype of the modern “conservative woman” and made the term synonymous with opposition to abortion in the first place. The GOP drove out any woman who might disagree, embraced the ideologically strict tactics of Phyllis Schafly, and carved out a very specific role for conservative women embedded in traditionally “feminine” behavior—that big pink bus really says it all. And then they have the nerve to suggest that the left only embraces one type of woman.

It’s the ultimate posthumous victory for Schafly and her vision for America, the decisive battle in the culture war she launched with her opposition to Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment. Schafly would be so proud, just like all those conservatives on the Judiciary Committee.

Anybody who opposes her, opposes progress for women, thereby making liberals the real enemies of women

Schafly’s tactics are infuriating, but they have proven successful long-term strategy for the Republican party. The flipside of the GOP’s empowerment talk about Barrett is that anybody who opposes her, opposes progress for women, thereby making liberals the real enemies of women. On the second day of Barrett’s confirmation hearings, Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn accused the Democrats were doing an ugly two-step, complaining that Republicans didn’t nominate enough women, then attacking the women they did nominate because they don’t fit into the “paradigm” of the left, instead being “pro-life, pro-family, pro-religion.”

“If you don’t buy into this agenda of the left, if you’re female, then they act as if you’re not a real woman,” Blackburn complained. She claimed Barrett’s peers have probably “tried to hold you back, because of your personal beliefs,” and that conservative women face struggles like not getting to join a professional org because they’re anti-abortion: “opinion not wanted, participation not wanted.”

“Freethinkers end up being called bad women, and traitors to our gender, and other disparaging comments,” Blackburn complained.

Blackburn is running a play borrowed straight from Schafly’s book: it’s conservative women who are persecuted, actually. As Sarah Jones wrote in a New York piece upon Barrett’s nomination, these hearings are the ultimate triumph of Schafly’s vision: “Barrett is the beneficiary of decades of right-wing activism, much of it carried out by women who not only rejected feminism but sought actively to bring it down low. In her religious conviction and her status as an accomplished but anti-feminist woman, the judge recalls Phyllis Schlafly, who died four years ago this month.”

But before Schalfy’s politics could remake America, first they had to remake her party. Republican First Lady Betty Ford, for instance, was once one of the most prominent feminists in America. She advocated fiercely for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and she once said in an interview with 60 Minutes: “I feel very strongly that it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and, in my words, to bring it out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belongs.” That’s because in the 1970s, there were women in the GOP who were pro ERA and pro-choice. As late as 1980, one of them—Mary Dent Crisp—was the co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

The freedom available to women is the freedom to zealously enforce traditional gender roles

Schafly, on the other hand, spent years arguing that feminists were lying to themselves and lying to other women about the notion that any of them might find satisfaction anywhere except first and foremost their role as wives and mothers. Anything they might do afterward or alongside was an extension of that role. It’s so obvious, but the GOP would have you forget it: Schafly wasn’t arguing “yes, and,” asking that public life make room for housewives and career women alike; she was explicitly arguing that the only proper role of women is the home, or the defense of the institution of the home, which is the carve-out that allowed Schafly’s own activist career. The freedom available to women is the freedom to zealously enforce traditional gender roles. She helped drive anybody who might make a counter-argument out of the GOP, and made “conservative woman” coterminous with anti-choice and “constitutionalist,” i.e., opposed to abortion rights and measures like the ERA.

With the ERA advocates and anybody who saw any good in Roe vs. Wade gone, the party embraced only those women who wanted to embody the Schafly vision for American womanhood. Now, the GOP says that women can be mothers and successful, but what they mean is: a woman’s appropriate primary role, the role she most naturally wants, is motherhood, but it’s fine if she wants to fit something else around that, under very specific conditions. And so, even as they praise her brilliance, conservatives have absolutely fallen all over themselves to praise Barrett’s “fecundity” and to present her as the ultimate role model: first and foremost a mother, one who now wants to “serve” her country. (“I think probably the law of Amy prevails at the Barrett household over those children!” Blackburn joked at one point, before reminiscing about telling her own kids she was “the chief mama in charge.”)

“All women deserve the opportunity to rise,” argued Blackburn, at one point. But while the conservative agenda includes cheerleading the idea of a white woman who balances a large family with a demanding job, their agenda does nothing practical to support mothers—no parental leave, no childcare, and, if they can get away with it, no Obamacare. Success outside the home is instead supposed to be contingent on support from the “traditional” family. “We couldn’t do what we do, without supportive spouses,” Blackburn said, after praising Barrett’s husband for standing by her side and joking that her own husband will one day write a memoir called, I Carried Her Purse.

In other words, moms can succeed with the explicit signoff and assistance of their husbands, as long as they need no structural help from outside and advocate for a world where none is readily available. The GOP and its foot soldiers like Barrett and Blackburn have absolutely no interest in creating a world where families have any assistance from without, and where women don’t depend on men—and in fact, Barrett has secured her place on the court because her record suggests she’s willing to rule against anything that might make it otherwise.

Barrett is empowered, all right—empowered to enforce a fundamentally patriarchal vision of American society.

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