"The New Female Empowerment": Only Conservatives Need Apply

Here's why the vaunted rise of conservative women isn't a boon to all women: it only works if you're conservative.

In a thoughtful column on Sarah Palin, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and the current high visibility of conservative women, the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Morford writes,

[M]ost progressive women are right now discovering a brutally painful truth, one that men have known for millennia: With power, glory and long overdue cultural advancement, comes a whole delightful s—bag of downsides, drawbacks, jackals and bitches to poison the party. Fun!

He adds, "as much as we now have cause to celebrate the new female empowerment, there appears to be more than enough reason to cringe and sigh and scream into the Void: 'No no no, oh hell no, this is not what we meant at all.'" But all this would only be true if we actually had cause to celebrate the new female empowerment, if we had in fact achieved the "power, glory and long overdue cultural advancement" Morford describes. But it's not just some coincidence that most of the women currently captivating American political culture are conservatives — their paths to power are uniquely open to conservative women, for reasons that have a lot to do with the continued disempowerment of women in general.

In a post on whether or not to call Palin a feminist (a question that's spawned plenty of anti-feminist snarking), blogger Figleaf writes, "you can't deny that Palin's done as much to increase the space in which gender isn't a barrier to political office as, say, Hillary Clinton has. Probably more than, say, Nancy Pelosi." It's certainly true that Palin gets far more ink than either Clinton or Pelosi these days — and while it's nigh impossible to imagine a Pelosi presidency, a Palin one is all too real a possibility. And unlike Pelosi or Clinton, Palin has been embraced by exactly the hard-line conservatives one might expect would be least comfortable with a female candidate.

So how does she do it? Moxie, maverickness, and a strong hand on the purse-strings? Try being anti-choice and anti-healthcare reform. The fact of the matter is, Palin got where she is today not in spite of, but because of positions that actually limit other women's freedoms. She can call herself a feminist (maybe she can even be one), but she's palatable to conservatives precisely because she stands for things feminists fight against. Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, writes in US News & World Report of Fiorina, Whitman, and Nikki Haley,

Many are pro-life moms, rather than pro-choice activists. These women are no more likely to burn their bras than burn the flag

Of course, it's possible to be a pro-choice mom (Nancy Pelosi is one), and feminists never really burned bras. (It's also true that Whitman has a mixed record on abortion). But to be a liberal woman in America is still to be reduced to a stereotype, and many groups who love Palin's "mama grizzly" rhetoric would likely boo a woman who suggested her fellow women should get to choose whether or not to be mamas. For many hard-core social conservatives, left-wing women remain man-hating, unmaternal harpies, and a woman can only gain acceptance if, like them, she wants to restrict rights for all women. This is not to say that Clinton and Pelosi haven't had their successes, or that it's impossible to rise as a liberal woman in America. But the trail blazed by the "new conservative women" — a trail that now starts with a Palin endorsement, continues through mainstream media coverage and acceptance by those who a few years ago might have scoffed at a female candidate, and potentially ends with public office — is a trail currently closed to liberal, and especially pro-choice, women. And a path for some is far from empowerment for all.

The Rise Of Hugely Insufferable Women [SF Chronicle]
Lindsay Beyerstein On Sarah Palin: Feminism Being A Spectrum And Not A Point, There Can Be Both Good And... Very Bad Feminists [Figleaf's Real Adult Sex, via The Sexist]
The New Conservative Feminist Movement [US News & World Report]
A Feminism That Spans From Palin To Pelosi [Washington Post]

Earlier: Sarah Palin, False Prophet