Since Sarah Palin redefined the word “feminist” to include women who actively work against women’s rights, female Republican candidates in the upcoming primaries have been rallying behind the cause and riding the wave of faux-feminist populism to hopeful victories. In California in particular, two conservative women who have reached that apex of self-determination afforded by wealth are proving that white women can be rich, anti-woman Republicans too.

Carly Fiorina is running for the Republican nomination for one of California’s two Senate seats, currently held by Democrat Barbara Boxer. A self-made multimillionaire and former CEO of HP, she’s earned the right to play the big money game with the men running against her. Endorsed by Sarah Palin in her oddly admirable but entirely misguided quest to elevate conservative women candidates, Fiorina is now the favorite in the Republican primary. If she wins, she will run against Boxer, who has nowhere near the amount of money Fiorina has.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman is the former CEO of eBay, and also came into her wealth through business. Her main opponent in the primary is state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who also gained his wealth through high tech business. Both Poizner and Whitman have spent masses of their personal fortunes battling it out — $80 million for Whitman, $23 million for Poizner.

These women are part of a new wave of conservative feminism, which apparently views women’s advancement in the workplace and politics to be the most important tenet of actual feminism. Basically, these conservative feminist leaders have decided that the advancement of women to the upper echelons of business — something they have already achieved — is what feminism should really be about. Behind the complicated, self-invalidating beliefs pairing the “right to life” with an exhortation to protect women and children and their token glorification of the homemaker is just the basic white feminist desire to finally reach that level of equality with men in regards to power and most importantly, privilege. Once the smoke clears, wealthy conservative feminist candidates will likely discontinue the rhetoric exalting homemaking as one of the most important things a woman can do. By opposing ideas like subsidized child care, access to birth control, and legal abortion, these women will actually make things worse for any homemaker not privileged by race and wealth.

Sarah Palin has cited Margaret Thatcher as a conservative feminist hero, even though Thatcher made it clear she did not desire to be called such, stating “I owe nothing to feminism”. This illustrates an important point: feminist does not mean “strong woman”. Conservative feminists conflate the two entirely, which is why they feel they can get away with calling themselves feminists while holding beliefs and supporting causes antithetical to feminism. By labeling every female Republican primary candidate “feminist” when they mean “strong woman” they seek to redefine the word so that they can appropriate it for their own benefit.

Being that the apparent leaders of the burgeoning conservative feminist “movement” are extremely privileged, it’s hard to believe they will advocate for anyone but those at their own level of privilege. If you take a look at those calling themselves conservative feminists, the vast majority of them are white. Their complete lack of focus on issues concerning women of color combined with the lack of representation of women of color in their movement belies their populist claims of “sisterhood”. As with families, in this movement your sister tends to look a lot like you. In that sense, conservative feminism hearkens back to the days when more liberal feminists sought to marginalize women of color, lesbian women, and poor women. This is not surprising, as conservatism tends to look backward rather than forward.

The conservative feminist movement desires to reap the rewards of the strides made by actual feminists without actually having to agree or support the whole of feminist ideology. By taking feminism and removing the tenets that are disagreeable to them, which happen to be the most important tenets, their message basically amounts to a sophisticated exhortation of “girl power”. But this girl power is solely available to those it benefits the most — wealthy, white, cisgendered women. Poor women, working class women, women of color, trans women, and other traditionally marginalized groups cannot see themselves in this movement because it is not designed for them. Real inclusive feminism sees the struggles of all women to be important, internal or external, as evidenced by the oft-quoted feminist refrain that “the personal is political”. This conservative feminism wants nothing to do with the personal unless it’s used as bait to reel in less privileged conservative women who will ultimately not be served by the movement at all.

Feminists who believe in actual social justice for all women, who work towards advancing related causes, must be vocal about the appropriation of the term “feminist”. As Kate Harding pointed out, “words mean things”. Working for, not against, women’s basic rights, including the right to choose, is a central tenet of feminism. Conservative “feminists” seek a redefinition that excludes that which is most important about the movement they are co-opting. We need to force them to come up with their own word.

17 thoughts on “Feminist does not mean “strong woman”

  1. I'm a new reader to your blog, and I've immensely enjoyed your writing! You've given me some great food for thought and unpacked racism and sexism in a way that makes sense to me (and more importantly helps me to construct my arguments and responses in discussions with others on the subjects!).

    It was both entertaining and extremely disheartening to read through the tenets of conservative feminism. It brings back my childhood memories of debutante balls and manners schools, completely heteronormative and devoid of any racial or socio-economic diversity: "Young ladies, we are fighting for the right [for those of us in attendance] to do what we want, as long as it is prim, proper, and professional. We'll have none of that debauchery here. Those of you in support of debauchery may leave now."

    What I really mean to say is: right on!!

    • Thanks! Yeah, the conservative feminism tenets include things like "the right to be feminine", which was not a right I know to have been taken away from cis women.

  2. After what Carly Fiorina did to HP, I can't believe that anyone would elect her to do anything, but I guess she'll show me.

    Lord, I hope Boxer wins.

    • Lord, I hope Boxer wins.

      Ugh, tell me about it. I'm perfectly happy keeping her as one of our Senators, she's done a good job. Voting out incumbents just because they're incumbents is silly and shows that the Teabaggers are not interested in educating themselves about who votes for what in Congress. No point in throwing out an incumbent if their voting record is decent.

  3. I've really enjoyed reading about this topic both here and on SP. I had been trying to figure out why hearing Sarah Palin call herself a feminist instantly sends me into a fit of angry liberal ranting, and you (and Kate Harding) definitely helped clarify it for me.

    • I'm glad I could help. I too tend to go into a fit of angry ranting when thinking about this topic, which makes it a personal accomplishment for me to have actually made sense.

  4. Thank you! I absolutely loathe the "conservative feminist movement." I actually refuse to call it feminist because it totally offends me when someone does. I prefer "conservative women's movement." It is absolutely antithetical to the central tenets of feminism, and anyone who doesn't understand that knows nothing about feminism. All of those women (their grand mistress Sarah Palin in particular) reek of self-satisfied privilege, heteronormativity, and racial ignorance. I find it to be incredibly manipulative. They know what the fuck they're doing and they know it's bullshit. You interrogated this shameful phenomenon quite well, Tasha. But I'd expect nothing less. 🙂

  5. Meg Whitman started skeeving me out right away when she ran constant ads during the Olympics. Seriously, anyone who has the money to saturate the air during such a major event and chooses to do so is someone I don't trust to run my state.

    As for Fiorino, she nearly destroyed a huge, multigenerational prosperous company and got a golden parachute for it. I hate to think what she would get away with on a national level.

    The idea that people like these two and Sarah Palin are co-opting the term feminism for themselves revolts me. What next? Skinheads for racial diversity? You know, as long as the race in question is white and Christian.

    • As for Fiorino, she nearly destroyed a huge, multigenerational prosperous company and got a golden parachute for it. I hate to think what she would get away with on a national level.

      Frick, more like a platinum parachute. What was it, like $20 million? She really upended the unique worker-centered culture there, which says a lot about what she'll do in the Senate.

  6. Heather Flescher says:

    Uggggggh. That "Conservative Feminism" page is every bit as bad as I thought it would be. For motherhood and for children, over and over again. Who could argue with being in favor of mothers and children? But like you point out, Tasha, only certain ones. Also, "protecting the children" is a popular code phrase that conjures up imaginary dangers to justify homophobic and transphobic attitudes and policies. The kind of stuff that does real harm to queer and trans women… and doesn't do any real good for children either.

    And the Kate Harding article is brilliant. I hope a lot of people see it.

    • Also, “protecting the children” is a popular code phrase that conjures up imaginary dangers to justify homophobic and transphobic attitudes and policies.

      Seriously. It seems like every bigoted idea these people come up with is in the interest of protecting the children.

      The kind of stuff that does real harm to queer and trans women… and doesn’t do any real good for children either.

      Right! Their "woman/child-centered" policies just make things worse for both women and children, which is sad.

      P.S. I have not ignored your e-mail from so long ago. I've just been super busy and I want to respond thoughtfully.

  7. You and most of your readers have probably already heard or read this book, but I want to put it out there anyway–
    Enlightened sexism : the seductive message that feminism's work is done by Susan J. Douglas

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