The Ghost of Feminism and the Conservative Women

Lurking in the background of the 30th annual Conservative Political Action Conference [www.cpac,org], which met in Arlington Virginia from January 30 to February 1, was the ghost of the feminist movement. The issues raised by feminism are no longer front and center, as they were when about a hundred conservatives from four organizations first gathered 30 years ago, but they lingered like an ethereal presence, providing foil and target for speeches and exhibits.

This year’s conference celebrated the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment by honoring Phyllis Schlafly at the first evening’s banquet. Schlafly recounted her battle against the ERA, which failed to be ratified by the June 1982 deadline, from her “kitchen table” despite a bipartisan establishment who said she could not win. She described the pro-ERA leadership as “a motley collection of harridans, harpies, hags and disheveled lesbians.”

Schlafly is an old war horse of conservatism, whose personal priorities have always been foreign policy and national defense. Schlafly first came to public prominence in 1964 by distributing three million copies of her self-published booklet, A Choice Not an Echo, advocating Barry Goldwater’s election. Her reward was election as First Vice President of the National Federation of Republican Women. When the anti-Goldwater forces were retaking the Republican Party after his defeat, they blocked her ascension to the presidency of the NFRW in 1967. She left to build her own following through a newsletter and the Eagle Forum, [] the entity she founded in 1972. After the ERA was sent to the states in 1972, opposition to it gave her a national platform. While making her reputation as an anti-feminist, Schlafly continued to snip at the heels of the Republican Party, going to every Republican national convention to help remove feminists and moderates of all stripes from the slightest shred of position or influence.

One of her proteges was Elaine Donnelly, a young woman from Michigan who helped Schlafly with STOP ERA and accompanied her to most of the Republican conventions in the last 25 years. In the 1980 Presidential campaign Schlafly had Donnelly put on Reagan’s National Women’s Policy Advisory Board, and eventually appointed to government advisory committees on military women.. Donnelly subsequently set up her own organization, the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), [www,] to “keep women from undermining the strength of the strongest military in the world.”

Donnelly was given a special award for grass roots activism at last year’s CPAC. This year she followed Ollie North’s screed at the French (for opposing a US War in Iraq) with an equally vehement denunciation of Hillary Clinton. Donnelly claimed that now that Clinton is on the Senate Armed Services Committee she might insist that women be assigned to combat units. Last year the CMR charged the Clinton administration with “infiltrating” women into units being trained in field surveillance that might encounter combat conditions. Donnelly claimed credit for getting Bush to change the units to “male-only” status. CMR also objects to any training, even a few weeks of basic training, being co-ed.

The two poster girls of the conservative movements are Katherine Harris and Ann Coulter, judging by the audience response to their speeches and the numbers who lined up to have books signed. Harris came to fame as Florida’s Secretary of State who made decisions favorable to the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Now a Member of Congress, she provided a low- key policy analysis. Coulter, a former lawyer who rode the anti-Bill Clinton wave as a writer, gave a series of one liners, more resembling political satire than political thought. She said ‘The Democratic party should rename itself the Adultery Party.”

Most of the podium speakers were regulars on the conservative conference circuit. Among the few new women was Kimberly Schuld, who recently published a Guide to Feminist Organizations while working for the Capital Research Center []. Schuld told the CPAC audience that the “feminist movement doesn’t have the support of ordinary women. It feeds at the public trough” by taking federal money and using it to lobby for feminist goals. Her Guide describes 35 organizations, foundations and interest groups aimed at women or women’s issues “inside the Beltway,” though it misses a few and includes several located in San Francisco, New York, and places far away from Washington, D.C. In her Introduction Schuld says doners are her target audience; they should be careful about funding organizations whose views are “at odds with their own.”

While claiming that the Guide is based on “publicly available information” Schuld demonstrates a vast ignorance about women’s history in general and feminism in particular. She says NOW “was created largely because gender was not included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act” (it was put in on Feb. 8, 1964 by a House teller vote of 168 to 133). She also thinks that the slogan “The personal is the political” originated in the Progressive era and means that “every woman’s personal struggle, every difficult situation or emotional problem could be explained by defects in America’s political system.” These and the many other misstatements of fact undermine the veracity of her Guide.

While feminism (and Hillary Clinton) are still favorite targets, abortion, a staple of a conservative ideology which otherwise extols individual freedom and personal choice, was barely mentioned. This year’s “sex” talk was given by Dr. Meg Meeker, a practicing physician in northern Michigan concerned with the “epidemic” of venereal disease. She said more women’s lives are lost to cervical cancer than to HIV/AIDS. Advocating abstinence among the unmarried, she said sexual health is more important than sexual freedom.

None of the many explicitly pro-life organizations were among the 74 official conference co-sponsors, though some did buy space among the 90 + booths in the exhibit hall. Opposition to personal choice on matters of sex has become embedded in conservative ideology; it’s not even discussed.

Sex aside, appeals to women are still actively made by conservatives. Three of this year’s co-sponsors were groups specifically focused on women, all of whom had booths in the exhibit hall. In addition, the Eagle Forum, Schlafly’s personal front group, was given exhibit space right outside the entrance to the meeting hall. Missing was the Independent Women’s Forum, which is better known than the ones that were there.

Concerned Women for America (CWA) [] was founded in 1979 after Beverly LaHaye saw a TV interview given by Betty Friedan. Saying “that woman doesn’t represent me,” she called together seven female friends who put a notice in the newspaper asking for help to fight the ERA. CWA believes that “organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women have resulted in a serious decline in the nation’s moral structure.”

CWA is a Christian organization, whose purpose is “to translate biblical values into public policy.” LaHaye is the wife of Rev. Tim LaHaye, a nationally known evangelical minister and author of Christian novels. From their home in San Diego they have conducted Family Life Seminars teaching Biblical principles for living. She has also written several books on these topics. []

CWA claims to be “the largest public policy women’s organization in the nation” with 500,000 members. It defines a member as anyone who has donated money, signed a petition, or otherwise indicated an active interest in the previous two years. Its action-alert e-mail is sent to 17,000 people. An undisclosed number are organized into prayer/action chapters to work locally, co-ordinated by 38 appointed state leaders. About ten percent of its “membership” are men, and men hold half of the leadership positions in the national organization, including vice president for government relations and chief lobbyist. CWA works with other “pro-family” organizations on judicial nominations, education, opposition to acceptance of homosexuals, and national sovereignty issues.

Although formed to oppose feminist ideas, the CWA has extended its reach to anything that “concerns the family.” These include opposition to stem cell research, cloning, CEDAW (the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and sex education. It has also published policy papers on “School Prayer and Religious Liberty,” and “Funding Faith-Based Organizations.” One policy paper attacks Margaret Sanger, an exponent of birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, for creating a “eugenic plan for black Americans” which would “restrict–many believe exterminate–the black population.” Although its Washington lobby works closely with the Eagle Forum, it has occasionally called a truce with feminists. Last fall it co-signed a letter with the National Organization for Women to CBS objecting to its airing of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show as selling women rather than clothes.

New to CPAC is the Second Amendment Sisters (SAS) [], formed in December of 1999 by women who objected to the Million Mom March against guns that was planned for Mother’s Day 2000. Its five founders found each other and kindred spirits through posts to, a right-wing web page. They brought 5,000 women to Washington for an Armed Informed Mothers March and turned them into a national organization. Although it admits men as associate members, SAS believes it is important to “put a woman’s face” on opposition to gun control. Proclaiming that “Self Defense is a basic human right” it organizes “ladies days” at gun clubs and “shop and shoot weekends.” “Come nervous, leave proud,” SAS says. Although its focus is on gun ownership and use, it includes martial arts within the scope of self defense skills women should have and is pointedly not affiliated with the National Rifle Association (which has its own women’s auxiliaries).

Perhaps the least informed of all the women’s groups at CPAC was the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute []. Founded in 1993, its priority is giving young women “hands-on training in countering radical feminism and fighting for conservative principles.” Proclaiming that “feminists are wrong on almost every issue they tackle,” CBLPI objects to almost anything tinged by feminism: affirmative action “because feminists were seeking to foster a pattern of dependency based upon special preferences,” women’s centers “that became places to plot the demise of traditional values,” and “leftist” women’s studies programs. Although no one at its booth would agree to an interview, CBLPI’s positions are clear from its publications and web page. Its newsletter hosts a regular page of “Feminist Follies” where it quotes “Mrs.” Steinem (Gloria’s mother?) on things it does not like.

While it shares policy positions with the other conservative women’s groups, more than any of the others the CBLPI ignores facts and rewrites history. It extols “Mrs. Luce … [as] the most influential woman in both modern American history and the American conservative movement” with little knowledge of her life, her own views or her time. It also says “she came under the same kind of attack from liberals and feminists of her day that modern women encounter today when they are successful without espousing feminist ideas.” In CBL’s day, feminists and liberals were on opposite sides of the great policy divide created by protective labor laws and the Equal Rights Amendment. Luce was on the feminist side–an ERA supporter who often looked to other women for support. Long after political realignment put liberals and feminists on the same side, Luce still supported the ERA. Her biographers note she was always friendly toward the ERA. When Gloria Steinem had tea with her in Hawaii in the late 1970s, she found Clare to be a feminist on every issue except abortion.

Clare Booth Luce was a remarkable woman, but not because “she personified the qualities that mainstream women admire,” as CBLPI leaflets declare. After an inauspicious start in life, she became a magazine editor, a playwright, a Member of Congress (R-CN, 1943-47), and Ambassador to Italy (1953-57). Born in 1903, the second child of a young mother who lived with her father for nine years but never married him, Clare was anything but mainstream. Strikingly beautiful and intensely ambitious, she married a millionaire twice her age and divorced him six years later to become a full-time working mother. Her 1935 marriage to TIME magazine founder and publisher Henry Luce freed her to write and dabble in politics. CBL was also a feminist, as her own mother had been. Alva Belmont personally recruited her into the National Woman’s Party; one of her tasks was to drop ERA leaflets from an aeroplane at the NWP’s 1923 conference in Seneca Falls a month before her first marriage.

Clare’s politics resembled those of many well-off women of her day. She rejected the welfare state of the New Deal and opposed US involvement in the European War. She believed that women were politically important, and that they deserved equality with men. Having won her seat in Congresss partly by organizing the woman’s vote, she began her speech before the 1944 Republican convention by acknowledging that “Plainly the honor of speaking to you… has come to me because I am a woman.” Writing in a syndicated column in the mid 1930s, she said war would lose its romance if there were more “war-veteran mothers.” She asked, “What nation would plunge into a war in which its men fought not for their wives and sweethearts, but with their wives and sweethearts?” Although she became steadily more conservative and fiercely anti- Communist as she grew older, only on abortion did she differ with the feminist movement. CBL had an illegal abortion when she was 18, but converted to Catholicism after her only daughter was killed in 1944.

If CBLPI wants young conservative women to emulate Clare Booth Luce, they should hope no one reads her biography.

Conservative women are very shy, especially young conservative women, so they may not find Luce to be a role model they can follow. Or perhaps they are simply inoculated by traditional female modesty. In three days at CPAC I saw fewer women at the podium than at a typical Republican national convention — about 15 percent, including introducers and panel moderators. Even the panel on “Real stories of real liberal bias on real college campuses” featured five young men but no women. When speakers asked for questions from the floor, only a dozen women stood at one of the two microphones to ask a question in three days; only one of these looked like she was under 30. After Schuld spoke, the male moderator asked how many in the audience were women. There were a few titters but only about a dozen women raised their hands. In this audience of 4,000 about 40 percent were women, but raising their hands to admit this was too much for them to do. As long as conservative women prefer passivity they are no threat to feminists.

The annual conference is not a place for the grassroots to debate issues, except in so far as it happens in private conversations. There are no workshops. When time permits, questions were accepted from the audience, but when these became short speeches the moderator cut the questioner short. The tight schedule just didn’t permit extensive exchanges.

Nonetheless, the Patriots Act and the Total Information Awareness project received some sharp comments. While a speech favoring profiling was cheered loudly, another recommending that the military patrol our borders provoked grumbling as the full implications sank in. Conservatives are seriously conflicted between their love of individual freedom and their desire for security. A questionnaire filled out by 621 participants showed that only 21 percent were “prepared to give up some freedom for increased security,” while 46 percent thought that “concerns about the threat to individual freedom are justified.” Everyone wanted to stop illegal immigration, but the many children and grandchildren of immigrants were ambivalent about reducing legal immigration. This “family values” crowd wasn’t warm to the idea that immigration policy should no longer give relatives priority.

CPAC made a special effort to recruit young people — tomorrow’s leaders they call them— with reduced fees and special scholarships. Of the 4082 people who registered for this year’s conference, 1726 paid the student fee.

Surveys of past CPAC conferences show that most were attending for the first time. About 30 percent of those responding were evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant; 30 percent were Catholic; 20 percent were mainline Protestant; with the remaining distributed between Jewish, Atheist and Other. Only two percent were Mormon, even though many people in this denomination are conservative Republicans. One result of CPAC’s youth outreach is that 60 percent were under 25. Less than 40 percent were women.

Next to Virginia, Ohio sends more people to the annual conference than any other state. When asked their impression of various conservative politicians, Pat Buchanan and John McCain receive the least favorable ratings. Not surprisingly, President Bush and the Republican leadership have the most favorable — though Trent Lott’s previously high ratings went down this year.

Although those attending and exhibiting at the CPAC range from the mainstream to the fringe right, attendees at the 30th conference saw themselves as more mainstream than fringe. They are happy with how far the conservative movement has come and where it is going. This represents a mutual convergence between the Republican party and the American right-wing. For the last thirty years right-wing Republicans have waged a concerted war on Republican moderates, driving them out of power and out of the party. Now that conservatism has taken over the center of the Republican Party it’s softening its edges–becoming more pragmatic and less ideological. The conservatives helped the Republicans win elections, and now that Republicans rule, they are eagerly turning the proposals of the right-wing think tanks into Republican policy for the next decade.

JO FREEMAN is the author of A ROOM AT A TIME: HOW WOMEN ENTERED PARTY POLITICS. Her next book, AT BERKELEY IN THE SIXTIES, will be published by Indiana University Press later this year. To contact her, go to: