There’s an assumption a lot of people of liberal persuasion tend to make about women who are politically involved: That, by very nature of their gender, they should be liberal. Because clearly, liberal-leaning politics provide more opportunities for women (including treating them like human beings instead of incubators), and women should just be naturally progressive because…uh…they’re women? Apparently being a woman means you support, for example, access to education, and environmental causes, and a social safety net, and other things that tend to be found in liberal, not conservative, politics.
So, women are supposed to be automatically aligned with the liberal camp, and conservative women are viewed as aberrations, like there is something deeply wrong with them. I encounter language like ‘brainwashed’ describing conservative women, particularly politicians, like it’s just beyond the pale to even begin to imagine that those women might be conservative for their own legitimate and carefully considered reasons. This kind of language is patronising and strips such women of their humanity and autonomy, but it’s quite common, and people don’t quite seem to realise what sorts of ideas they’re perpetuating with it.
If you believe that women are human beings, and that they are capable of things like critical thinking and evaluation, you must admit that sometimes, a woman will come to a different conclusion about something than you. I happen not to be a fan of conservative politics personally, something that is probably unsurprising to readers, but I have carefully evaluated them, I’ve read conservative texts, I’ve talked with conservatives in-depth about their social and political beliefs. There are a lot of things in conservatism I disagree with not just because I think they are fundamentally wrong, but also because I believe they are bad for this country, and do not demonstrate sound fiscal and social policy.
But I don’t dismiss conservatism out of hand, and I understand why some people choose to align themselves with conservative values even if in many cases I disagree with the logic they use to arrive at that conclusion, and the underlying attitudes behind many of their beliefs. That includes conservative women, who are only inclined to dig their heels in deeper if liberals yelling at them can’t come up with more cogent arguments than ‘well, you’re a woman! So you should support us!’ The fact is that, no, being a woman doesn’t make you liberal. It makes you a woman.
And conservatives generally tend to argue for some profoundly anti-woman policies, which is a subject worth bringing up with conservative women, but not in the context of the framing that liberalism is better1. A better question might be why those women support those policies, what kinds of benefits they believe such policies offer to society in general, and how they personally feel about those policies. If you want to convince someone that their politics are wrong, focus on their actual politics, not their gender, and be prepared to offer cogent arguments that actually consider their political beliefs, rather than just dismissing them as ‘wrong.’
Conservative women are a diverse group, like liberal women. Some are more extreme and others are more moderate. Some support specific candidates over others, some feel that specific conservative politicians do a disservice to their movement and actively speak out against them. Like liberal women, they can come from a variety of educational, class, and cultural backgrounds. One thing they are not is ‘brainwashed,’ any more than liberal women are ‘brainwashed’ for supporting the politics they believe in.
We can talk about the social and cultural context surrounding conservative women and what contributes to the formation of their political beliefs, but the same conversation could just as easily be had about liberal women. It’s not surprising that children’s politics often follow their parents and those of the communities they grow up in, because that’s what they are exposed to from an early age, and these things contribute to their formative experiences. But be wary of calling one kind of upbringing ‘broad’ and another ‘narrow,’ implication that liberals come from more diverse backgrounds; you can be a diplomat’s daughter and still be conservative, you can grow up in a small town with limited social and cultural diversity and still be liberal.
The attitude that women should be liberals ‘just because’ is not very productive, and it’s telling that mainstream liberal politics increasingly seems to be about the fact that it’s ‘not conservative.’ If that’s the best the movement can do, it clearly needs to go back to the drawing board, because that is not. Mounting a candidate as ‘not the conservative candidate’ is not enough. Presenting a platform as ‘better than the conservative one’ is not enough. Presenting politics in the US as utterly dualistic and simplistic is not enough.
Members of liberal movements who want to understand conservative women might want to start by meeting them in the middle to learn more about them and their background, instead of assuming they know all they need to know. And they might want to develop cogent policies that are proactive, rather than reactive, with a focus on making their politics stand out, rather than follow in the wake of the conservatives. Because until that happens, it’s pretty understandable why conservative women might prefer their own carefully-formed political beliefs to those being thrust at them on the basis of the fact that because they’re women, they should prefer them. You might as well repackage liberalism with pink sparkles and act like that’s supposed to get women involved in the movement, at that point.
- As though it has never been involved in anti-woman policymaking. ↩