At the CPAC panel on “Why Conservatism is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity & National Security” five conservative women did a fair job in pitching conservatives to women but they failed to provide a real, tangible reason why conservatism is for women. They noted CPAC’s own lapses (only one woman spoke on stage during the first day of the conference, most female speakers were placed on Saturday, the worst attended day) and said a positive effort was required to recruit women as leaders and voters.
But, if they came with a message for conservatives to hear from women, the speakers on the panel had scant advice for how conservatives should speak to women. The entire discussion was light on references to specific policy, save for when Sabrina Schaeffer of the Independent Women’s Forum endorsed guns at universities, saying, “You really want your daughter to be defenseless on a college campus without a gun?”
Instead of contrasting Republican and Democratic policies, the speakers contrasted the narratives and expectations of both parties. Kate Obenshain, the author of Divider in Chief, said that discrimination was a real problem, but only Republicans empowered women by not casting them as ”a victim class.”
The moderator, Tammy Bruce of The Washington Times, agreed, heaping scorn on Democratic women who, she said, talk about supporting women, while, in reality, “Liberals infantilize women by saying the government needs to take care of them.” The other women on the panel cheered.
But the women’s own remarks cast conservatives into a victim class of sorts, oppressed by some outside, unreasonable force, that could respond only to power, not to persuasion or negotiation. In order to build a coalition of and for women, these speakers might have done better to crib from the rhetorical strategies Rand Paul used in his speech at CPAC.
Paul opened by saying that his remarks were addressed not to Republicans, but to all “lovers of liberty,” which excluded some of his audience but also proffered an invitation to people outside the usual CPAC crowd. The first thinker and activist he referenced was William Lloyd Garrison, the unflinching abolitionist. From there, he proceeded to trace out a series of attempted tyrannies in American history, and the men and women who, in the words of Garrison, were “as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice” in opposing them.
He strung together the generalized warrants issued by the British that helped spark the Revolutionary war, the wide abuses of slavery and Japanese internment, the personal persecution endured by Richard Jewell, falsely accused of 1996 Olympic bombing, to the present lawlessness of the NSA. His story was united to the past accomplishments of activists, including those who might agree with him on civil liberties but disagree with him on economic or foreign policy. Paul was making a claim about intersectionality, that groups with different personal interests share a broader interest in opposing all tools that could be used for oppression.
The speakers at the women’s panel would have benefited by making a similar appeal to the victories of the past and looking for bridges of solidarity. It is doubtful that the suffragists known as “iron jawed angels” for persisting in hunger strikes for the right to vote felt infantilized by their struggle.
By speaking solely in terms of contempt and condemnation about liberal women, the panelists precluded the kind of solidarity that Rand’s speech offered. If they want the Republican party to offer a compelling message to female voters, it won’t be enough just to elect women, if all they have to offer is a negative message. The Republican party won’t be persuasive unless it can consistently recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the women’s rights movement, and tell a compelling story to establish their policies as an extension of that legacy.
They could tell a different story, about the powers that women sought and what they used them for. Carrie Nation sought the vote not just as a symbol of equality, but because the exclusion of women from the polling place meant that the needs of the family were ill-served by the government. She fought against drunkenness, but women today might fight for maternity and paternity leave.
Betty Friedan told the stories of women who were left adrift when they were still expected to be housewives, even as the work of running a household had been automated away. They wanted to enter the workforce, not just to make money, but to stop being isolated. Learning from her example, we might speak up for the workers whose factory jobs are being automated away or the college students who enter a hopeless job market, trying not only to make them financially stable, but to secure them the dignity of work and to strengthen the local institutions that offer community and relationships.
Tell a story about how women sought rights in order to be able to fully live out their responsibilities to their families, communities, and nation, and then you’ll be ready to ask to carry on the torch they bore.