I arrived at Dartmouth my freshman year firm in my conservative beliefs — and absolutely certain that I was not a feminist. For me, feminism was a dirty word, signifying a militant, man-hating movement that had degenerated to Marxist goddess-worship. The movement seemed entirely irrelevant, a far cry from the worthy battles waged by first wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony and others who fought for suffrage. Contemporary feminism had forgotten women.
It wasn’t until my sophomore winter that I started to really think about what it means to be a feminist. I took a look at myself, an Ivy League student aspiring for law school, and realized that for all my talk of renouncing feminism, I was leading a feminist life. Then I looked up the dictionary definition of feminism: “Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” and realized there was no reason for a person of sense, male or female, to condemn this.
So this is my message to the Class of 2008: If you are put off by the climate of victimization surrounding modern day feminism, if you are dismayed to see abortion treated as sacrosanct, if you plan on voting for Bush this November: that’s okay! You can advocate personal accountability, be pro-life, vote Republican and still be a feminist.
Now there most certainly exist those who deny this. Perhaps you have taken a Women’s Studies course under one of them. However, to deny politically conservative women the right to call themselves feminists is highly contradictory. Third wave feminism is a movement that supposedly prides itself on its inclusiveness. There are black feminists, eco-feminists, Marxist feminists, Chicana feminists — the list continues ad nauseum. Yet women who believe in tax cuts are somehow unfit to bear the label.
The concept of a conservative feminist seems novel. Yet there are groups that are dedicated to this idea, such as the Independent Women’s Forum and Feminists For Life. The reason no one hears about them is that these groups are constantly labeled “anti-feminist” for promoting stances on issues that differ from the prevailing left-wing feminist line. Yet the purpose of feminism is not to force feed women their positions on a multitude of issues, but to empower women to take their own stances without consulting NOW. If anything, it is anti-feminist to presume that there is only one “pro-woman” stance on any given issue. Women do not all need or want the same thing. To presume that women are a monolithic entity is to deny that women across class, racial and religious lines all have different interests — and it is incredibly condescending. Why is it acceptable for men to disagree on political issues, but if women disagree it is divisive and one of the two must necessarily be “anti-woman?”
Prominent women such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Lynne Cheney advocate what they call “equity feminism,” a conservative form of feminism that maintains equality between the sexes, but not at the expense of men. Yet these women are condemned over and over again by supposedly mainstream feminist groups. Instead of welcoming debate and dissent, they are accused of self-hatred and “selling out.”
Across the nation, campus conservatives have done what they can to refute constant claims that conservatism is a stuffy movement that caters only to old white men — and, perhaps surprisingly, women have been heavily involved. For example, conservative feminism made a very controversial debut on the Georgetown University campus in October 1997. Two female students at Georgetown produced a publication entitled “The Guide: A Little Beige Book for Today’s Miss G.”
The Guide contained several articles and interviews arguing that modern-day feminism is damaging to women. They commented on overblown statistics and decried an ideology of victimhood. They questioned the wisdom of magazines such as Cosmopolitan encouraging women to engage in the 99 newest sex techniques “sure to make him scream for more,” while STDs continue their rampage across America.
What was the campus reaction to The Guide? Their roommates publicly renounced them. Resident Advisors formed a sort of emergency response team to tell freshman women “the truth.” Or more accurately, send them to their local Women’s Resource Center for some quick deprogramming. Said student Yea Afolabi: “I think it is dangerous to disseminate this type of information on a college campus, especially Georgetown.”
Sensible people might ask what is dangerous about the sharing of ideas on a college campus. However, to the radicals, exchange of ideas is a very dangerous idea indeed. There is a saying: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” This applies fully to campus politics nationwide. The Guide sparked conservative women at Smith College and Yale University, among other campuses, to put together similar publications.
This past May I met Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, two women who are active in the third wave movement. They were Dartmouth’s “Visionaries in Residence,” brought here by the Center for Women and Gender. Politically, I disagree with these women on many issues. However, I have always admired their enthusiasm and dedication to equality for women. Ms. Baumgardner and Ms. Richards autographed my copy of their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. Their message to me was: “Here’s to making feminism your own.”
This should be the mantra for all feminists. Instead of trying to force all women to agree on everything, we should revel in our differences and encourage women of all political stripes who see themselves as the equals of men to call themselves feminists. Only then will we have a movement that is truly inclusive, and only then will the political movement match its stated goal.