April 17 2014

Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Mollie Hemingway

Charlotte Hays

She’s a lightning rod in the debates about feminism and religious liberty.

She’s been savaged by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank--a badge of honor in conservative circles--and rapidly is becoming a big deal in the conservative-leaning intellectual circles of the nation's capital.

Indeed, if you’ve been lately to the sort of Washington dinner party where Serious Issues are discussed over the after dinner drinks, chances are something Mollie Hemingway wrote for The Federalist, the hot new website launched in September, came up in conversation.  

Perhaps it was Mollie’s “The Seven Most Ridiculous Things about the New ‘Ban Bossy’ Campaign.” “Banning words is un-American,” Hemingway wrote. “Full stop. I shouldn’t have to point this out. You’ve heard the phrase ‘It’s a free country’? Yeah, well that’s ‘murica we’re talking about. Let Putin ban words and thoughts.” Later, on a radio show, Hemingway said she detected a "whiff of fascism" in efforts to reshape our thoughts by banning words.

Another recent Hemingway opus that has won plaudits (or triggered animosity, depending on where you stand) was her critique of mainstream media’s "hostility" to religious liberty issues. It was a breezily erudite piece in which Hemingway explored the roots of press freedom, including in the 1735 trial of Peter Zenger, a colonial printer in New York. Oh, yes, and she proclaimed the nation’s journos to be “dumb, uneducated and eager to deceive.” It was a riff on a famous 1993 Washington Post characterization of evangelical Christians as being "largely poor, uneducated and easily led."

And yet Mollie Hemingway in person seems just too nice to be Washington's latest oft-quoted controversialist. When, for example, Hemingway announced at a Kirkpatrick Society lunch—a monthly luncheon-salon for women founded by author Mary Eberstadt—that the theologian Jean Bethke Elshtain had died, Mollie self-deprecatingly admitted to a special affinity for the famous author: Elshtain, she recalled, was a diminutive Lutheran woman from the West—as is Hemingway. (Hemingway is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a mother who taught in the public school system.)

Hemingway agreed to be IWF’s Modern Feminist with one caveat: Hemingway doesn’t call herself a feminist. “It’s never been a word I felt had much meaning,” she said. “In general, I think there have been problems in that feminism has treated female biology as something that must be overcome rather than a wonderful gift. That’s my main problem with it,” Also, Hemingway has never felt she was inferior to men. “I was raised by parents who taught me that I was valuable and they taught the same thing to my siblings,” she said. “I was raised by parents who were incredibly interested in talking about politics and religion and so we discussed both from an early age,” she added.  

“One of the things that has kept me from calling myself a feminist is that libertarians historically have not aligned themselves with the feminist movement and believe that everybody has individual rights and people should be able to make decisions about their lives,” said Hemingway, who first explored libertarianism in junior high school. She was arguing about freedom of speech with a friend. The fourteen-year-old Mollie realized that her line of argument was “inconsistent” and was willing to read libertarian material proffered by the friend.

“I fell in love with the libertarian way of thinking,” she said. Liberty is a word often used by Hemingway. “I think it is vitally important for our culture that we have ideas of liberty coursing through our veins, and I am terrified of what we see in the world around us. Government, which is a big problem, has become so controlling. But it isn’t just government. The idea of control has been embedded into our society as well.” 

Hemingway majored in economics at the University of Colorado. She hadn’t planned a career in journalism, but, “I noticed that all my friends who were reporters really enjoyed what they were doing, even though they didn’t make much money. So I decided to make a go of it in 2001.” She worked for a Gannett publication that covered management of the federal government. “I learned how to write stories and interview people. I loved it even though the pay was terrible. I was hooked.”

A 2004 recipient of a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship, Hemingway spent nine years at GetReligion, where she was the media critic. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, National Review, and worked for the popular blog Ricochet until she signed on at The Federalist. 

The religious liberty issue was a natural for Hemingway. “I noticed that whenever I pitched a story on religion editors would go for it, so I started pitching stories on religion, which was an interest of mine.”

“One reason that a lot of people in the media don’t cover religious liberty issues well,” Hemingway said, “is that they are partisan and they are playing for a team that right now is not interested in religious liberty because it contradicts the goals of their team. Another element is that, for many in the media, religious liberty is not a freedom they see themselves using."

The media’s failure to cover religious liberty issues objectively means that people miss important elements of religious liberty stories. Often misunderstood, Hemingway said, is the case of Hobby Lobby, which sued the Department of Health and Human Resources because an HHS mandate would force the company to violate the religious beliefs of members of the family that owned Hobby Lobby.

“I talk to a lot of people on social media and Facebook,” Hemingway said, “who honestly believe that the people who started the battle between the Department of Health and Human Services and Hobby Lobby are the Hobby Lobby family. They don’t see the government aggression. When people such as the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, get fed up and fight back, they get blamed for launching a fight with the government rather than for responding to a threat to their liberty. So the controversy becomes biased in this way, perhaps irretrievably.”

The famed Milbank attack, however, wasn't over the issue of religious liberty. It was his column on a discussion of the impact of feminism at a Heritage Foundation panel, held at the end of Women’s History Month (March), that attracted the nasty notice of Dana Milbank. Hemingway shares the honor of having been lambasted in print by Milbank with columnist Mona Charen and Karin Agness, founder of the Network of Enlightened Women and a senior fellow at IWF, who were her fellow panelists.

The panel was on “Evaluating Feminism, Its Failures, and Its Future." Apparently shocked that the panelists saw marriage as potentially beneficial for women, Milbank snidely wrote:

The conservative minds of the Heritage Foundation have found a way for Republicans to shrink the gender gap: They need to persuade more women to get their MRS degrees. 

“He missed the boat and mansplained to us,” Hemingway said of the Milbank column. “He interpreted [what was said about marriage] as our telling women to lean back, get married, pop out some kids and sit back and relax and take a walk.”

The panel did talk about the benefits of the “marriage culture” for individual women and society at large. “You can either have a society built around government and government redistribution of benefits, which of course is a society that doesn’t sustain itself for long,” Hemingway said. “But that is your option if you don’t have a society built around the family.”

Hemingway said that the panel also addressed the “paradox of feminism:” despite the enormous opportunities that have opened up to women over the last decades, a larger percentage tell pollsters that they aren’t as happy as previous generations.

“We don’t want to have all these opportunities—and we have wonderful opportunities—just for the sake of having them,” Hemingway said. “We should have some other, larger goal such as happiness. If we are not happy, and, in fact, if we are less happy, shouldn’t we think about why this is?” 

The panel also talked about the “marriage gap:” college educated women tend to marry before raising children, while increasingly poor women don’t. That is one reason they remain poor. “We were talking not just about elite people—people in Dana Milbank’s class—but women in all areas of society who can benefit from this institution that has been responsible for human flourishing for millennia,” she said.

“There is a political incentive to keep women single,” she went on, “because being single correlates to voting habits. That’s one reason that the elite aren’t interested in extending the benefits of marriage to other people. They know that single women are more likely to vote Democratic.” As for Milbank, “I find it funny that after Milbank mocked us and butchered what we had said and that the very next day the Washington Post reported that Democrats are developing an algorithm to target single-women voters.”  

Hemingway lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband, Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard and the couple's two daughters. She often works in a neighborhood coffee shop and pulls late nighters so that she can spend time with her daughters when they come home from school. She made a decision to leave her full-time newspaper job when her first child was born and "cobble together" free lance assignments. She joined The Federalist as a senior editor when it was launched by Ben Domenech last September.

Not surprisingly, Mollie thinks a lot about how children are raised today.

“I am interested in how we are raising children to be so risk averse,” she said. “You see this in the neighborhoods I’ve lived in—this desire that children should never take a risk. They seem to have built it into people that the goal of life is to avoid anything bad happening. I’m a mother and I don’t want bad things to happen to my children. But in the past becoming an adult meant conquering challenges, and that almost guaranteed that some bad things would happen.”

Mollie took the other side when parents in her neighborhood put the kibosh on a lawn mowing operation by kids: lawn mowers can be dangerous, they reasoned. Mollie, who had a thriving mowing operation with her brother, knows this but believes that a modicum of risk is essential to becoming a successful adult. “If you want kids to end up happy and not on drugs and maybe make some money, you should let them learn to deal with risk. If you built into people the idea that the worst thing in the world is that something bad could happen then you start getting legislation built around that, too. This is harmful for a free society.”

 

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