Jezebel managing editor Erin Gloria Ryan and I spent most of last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in part because we thought it would be hilarious fun (it was). I also went because I wanted to get a better sense of the right's priorities for women. It's that deluded instinct that got me standing in a cavernous, dimly-lit, red-tinted ballroom as conservative talk radio megastar Laura Ingraham cracked joke after joke about Jeb Bush last Friday.

"He could really close the gender gap," she told a nervously tittering, slightly scandalized crowd. "Women would come out to vote for him. What woman wouldn't like a man who gives her a blank check at Tiffany's?"

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Ingraham could make that kind of joke for three reasons: because Jeb Bush was deeply unpopular among the CPAC attendees (he came in fifth in the presidential straw poll and got extensively booed during a Q&A with Sean Hannity); because his wife Columba Bush was recently revealed to have very expensive tastes; and because—at CPAC, anyway—the gender gap is just that, a punchline.

According to virtually all of the people speaking from the CPAC stage and what seemed like a majority of the attendees, there is no difference between how men and women are treated in American society. The few speakers who mentioned, say, the pay gap at at all talked about it as a fanciful construction invented by the left to woo voters. Sexism, in the CPAC world, is a liberal figment meant to disempower women by making them feel weak, helpless, and taken advantage of.

Talking about inequality is a tool for division and it's un-American, as senator and likely presidential candidate Marco Rubio told the audience: "Sometimes you wouldn't know we're an exceptional nation by listening to the left. They describe us as a nation divided on lines of gender and race and class. But Americans know we're exceptional."

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The CPAC attendees are largely younger than Rubio, many college-aged or in their 20s and 30s. They're also more libertarian-leaning. The people I spoke to didn't care much about gay people getting married; they were either for it or saw it as a state's rights issue. Plenty of them also wanted to see pot legalized, and though many were personally against abortion, they didn't seem totally comfortable outlawing that either (the straw poll showed that 50 percent of the attendees who classified themselves as anti-abortion wanted some sort of exception for rape, incest, or life endangerment).

But they also seemed baffled— utterly so—at the idea of women, or people of color, or anybody else, having an unequal set of rights in American in 2015.

"They just don't see it like that," a reporter for a conservative publication told me. "We're all equal in God's eyes, that kind of thing. We may have different skills or talents, or come from different backgrounds, but we're equal."

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There's nothing wrong with that sentiment in theory, but the ways it played out in practice were deeply weird. Down the hall from Rubio, in a smaller, nondescript conference room, another likely presidential candidate and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina urged an audience of mostly college-aged women not to buy the "War on Women" myth, which she's previously called "baseless propaganda." For Fiorina, that means hailing the hundreds of new abortion laws passed in the past five years as progress for women, and dismissing the idea that there's any sort of serious residual pay gap between men and women (there is, and in recent years we've made almost no progress closing it). When she did acknowledge the pay gap, Fiorina argued that it was the fault of unions, the fault of individual women themselves, for leaving the workforce to raise children—anything but discrimination.

"Too many women are influenced by the rhetoric and don't know how to push back," Fiorina said of the "War on Women" idea. Somehow, though, that concept has been reliably translating into votes for Democratic candidates, a sinister calculus the right hasn't quite figured out. So Fiorina created the "Unlocking Potential Project," which, she said, aims to get women to "engage with the political process." Conservative women, that is: the only real gender gap Fiorina's Unlocking Potential seems concerned with is the greater numbers of women who are voting blue.

"We found there were a lot of women who wanted to get engaged in that political process and we welcomed them with open arms," Fiorina said. Unlocking Potential involved grassroots voter outreach in five states during the midterm elections: North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Colorado.

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"We took back—we won Republican Senate seats in three out of the five," Fiorina said. "We came agonizingly close in Virginia and did not win in New Hampshire, but closed the gender gap."

It's unclear how Fiorina wants to help women Unlock Their Potential after the elections are over. Take work, for example: Fiorina, who famously said that the glass ceiling "doesn't exist" during her tenure as CEO of Hewlett Packard (before she was forced out in 2005), acknowledged that U.S. women aren't participating in the labor force the way they were in 1990. We had the sixth-highest female labor participation rate then; by 2010 we'd fallen to 17th. Yet Fiorina blamed Barack Obama's presidency for that gap: "The real war on women is being waged by liberal policies," she told the audience, who nodded along. "The real war on women is happening every day in communities across America. In fact, the track record of this administration and the track record of President Obama, Mrs. Clinton, and Mrs. Pelosi have been very hard on women."

She didn't acknowledge what the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-partisan think tank, has identified as one of the central problems: that the U.S. doesn't have the same family-friendly policies as other countries, like parental leave. Nor does Fiorina support any measures to actually close the gender pay gap. She also doesn't believe in raising the minimum wage, despite the fact that women make up the majority of minimum-wage workers.

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"Equal pay for equal work, this is one area where I think our language is incredibly important," Fiorina said. "Of course it's a good idea. That's why there was a law passed in 1963 guaranteeing equal pay for equal work." She suggested that if women aren't paid enough, they should file a lawsuit. But really, she said, the far bigger problem is women leaving the workforce.

"The biggest impediment for equal pay for equal work is the seniority system," Fiorinia said. "The longer you've been here the more you get paid. This disadvantages women. They leave to raise their families. And frequently they're the last hired, the first fired."

That's sometimes true, and it might lead us back to the pesky notion that Americans need a better parental leave system. But no, Fiorina said, it just means we need to get rid of unions: "If we want equal pay for equal work, we need a meritocracy. We need pay for performance. Unions support the seniority system and federal bureaucracy." (In another panel, as Guardian columnist Jeb Lund pointed out, marriage—to a man, obviously—was touted as the solution for all women's economic woes.)

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"I think women are like a pile of dry tinder," Fiorina said brightly. "We throw the right match on them and they're going to get engaged, stand up and make a difference for this nation." Or at least they'll vote the right way.

I wandered out back to the main ballroom just in time to catch NRA president Wayne LaPierre, who was telling the crowd that the only way women are disempowered in America is if they're left without a firearm.

"You don't empower women by leaving them defenseless," he thundered, to furious applause.

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And then, as the day neared its end, it was time for a panel called "Baby Steps," composed of three women from the three largest anti-abortion organizations in America.

"Abortion-center feminism is dead," declared Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. She's confident, she said, that this will be the year Congress is able to pass a 20-week ban on abortion.

"W'ere getting traction on this idea—this actual truth—that abortion harms women," added Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United Life. "That abortion is not good for women. That the road for empowerment for women doesn't need to involve abortion as wives, as mothers, as sisters as friends. There's so much more that makes a powerful woman in our culture today... What they're promoting is reproductive bondage."

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Even now, Yoest added, "We're seeing dramatic gains at the state level in state-based legislation. AUL alone was involved over the last several years in over 70 pieces of pro-life law being enacted across the country... It's objectively unprecedented. The Guttmacher Institute," she said, which studies laws on abortion, among other things, "is absolutely going nuts, talking about how the sky is falling, talking about how the next thing, you know, is women are going to be Cinderella in the ash heap."

Dannenfelser said they would do "everything within the bounds of legality" to make sure their preferred candidates talk the right way about abortion: claiming, for example, that the procedure is paid for with federal funds. (That's not true and hasn't been true since 1976, when the Hyde Amendment was first passed.)

Yoest also likened all abortion providers to Kermit Gosnell: "The mainstream media didn't cover the fact that Kermit Gosnell, who was a dirty abortionist in Philadelphia, was convicted of killing babies after they were born." (The case was extensively covered in the media, including on our site.)

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"The legal abortion industry in America today is the back alley," Yoest claimed. "American women are not getting much better treatment from today's abortion industry than they did 30 years ago. In addition to the [20-week] ban, which we also support, is an emphasis on taking a look at this abortion industry and the fact that they've been allowed to a large degree to operate with impunity with very little legislative or administrative oversight. Your manicurist has more regulation in most places." (A GOP-led investigation of abortion clinics nationwide showed that abortion clinics are highly regulated and monitored, and numerous studies have shown that the procedure is extremely safe. Yoest claimed a moment later than abortion increases a woman's risk for suicide, although all the good science that's been done on the topic shows that's not true.)

And Darla St. Martin, the co-executive director of National Right to Life, seemed excited about the prospect of outlawing telemedicine abortions, one of the only safe ways for rural women to access the procedure.

"There are laws against webcam abortions that we're pushing in a number of states," she said. "Some of them have been enjoined but some of them are not enjoined. That cuts down from spreading them out into the hinterlands, so there's no convenient abortion."

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Somehow, though, these new anti-abortion laws added up to a triumph for women, just like Fiorina's stance against equal pay and against raising the minimum wage. The only progress for women is by going backwards as far and fast as possible.

"This election will either set us back or send us forward decades," Dannenfelser promised. That is, it seems, the only thing we can all agree on.

Photo via AP.


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.
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