White women fought against suffrage. Some of them. A lot of brave women like Alice Paul and Jane Addams took to the streets to protest and gain the right to vote for grateful ladies like myself. But some of their contemporaries opposed women’s franchise based on the argument that suffrage would denigrate the institution of marriage and family structures. Kate Shippen Roosevelt believed that childbearing and home life afforded the ultimate freedoms for women and that political engagement would detract from women’s natural place in the home. Like Roosevelt, influential women are still advocating for traditional roles that inadvertently sustain economic and social inequality between the genders. One of them is Kellyanne Conway.
Kellyanne Conway is a self-declared post-feminist. Post-feminism is an ideology that combats feminism by promoting traditional gender roles, proclaiming women to already be equal but better suited to “feminine” and domestic duties. While feminism acknowledges that women are not (and have not been) equal in society because of these prescribed roles and power structures, post-feminists reject the notion that there is still inequality and sexism towards women. (They have argued that manhood is under siege, which is why I say “towards women.”)
Borrowing the rhetoric of figures like Roosevelt and conservative anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly, women like Conway have ignored or reasoned away women’s inequality while simultaneously achieving their own political and economic success. Conway is Counselor to the most powerful man in the nation, is the first female campaign strategist to see a presidential candidate to victory, and has built a career and reputation in Washington that many men would envy.
She accomplished all of these feats while publicly supporting conventional gender stereotypes and rejecting feminism outright—feminism that enabled women like her to engage in politics in the first place. In an article she wrote in 2011, for instance, the political strategist and pollster proclaimed, “femininity is replacing feminism as a leading attribute for American women… if women really want to be taken seriously in the workforce these days, looking feminine is a good way to start.”
Much of Conway’s perspective on femininity and feminism echoes the arguments made by Schlafly, who fought in 1973 to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. A powerful voice of the Religious Right and Moral Majority, Schlafly presented feminism as an impediment to women’s happiness.
She argued that feminism (not rampant sexism) made women “believe that we live in a discriminatory and unjust society.” In a 2014 interview, Schlafly stated that “American women are so fortunate” and have made great strides since the 1960s and 70s. But, to her, those strides were not in the realms of reproductive rights, educational opportunities, or professional advances. Instead, she referenced the boon of dryers for diapers. Unlike when she was raising her children, “now women have paper diapers and all sorts of conveniences in the home. And it is the men and the technology that has made the home such a pleasant place for women to be. So I hope they will use that pleasant place to raise their children.”
For the past five decades, Schlafly promoted a conservative Christian agenda that relied on separating women’s and men’s spheres in society, encouraging women to seek fulfillment and identity in being wives and mothers rather than as independent individuals.
Schlafly died last year as Conway was on the campaign trail with Donald Trump. Now the Counselor to the President appears to be carrying the mantle of anti-feminism (in the guise of post-feminism) for her own generation. Conway shares Schlafly’s animosity for feminism and also identifies with traditional roles for women. In a recent interview, Conway professed, “I don’t consider myself a feminist. I think my generation isn’t a big fan of labels. My favorite label is mommy. I feel like the feminist movement has been hijacked by the pro-abortion movement or the anti-male sentiments that you read in some of their propaganda and writings.”
Feminism for post-feminist women is intentionally misrepresented as a threat to families and as being anti-male. Feminism to feminists is pro-woman and pro-male. Feminists want self-determination for women, whether they decide to take on the awesome job of raising children, enter the workforce, or both. That self-determination does include the right to choose when it comes to abortion but feminism also demands support for working and single mothers, something the traditional structures have not successfully provided.
The con of post-feminism is that women who have advanced educations and political and economic power (like Conway and Schlafly) are telling other women, whose opportunities are limited by their gender, socioeconomic status, and race, that they are already equal, thus suppressing the demand for true equality.
The post-feminist message that Conway is peddling actually serves to mask the very real sexism that persists in this country, for all women and especially for women of color who still have fewer opportunities than white women.
Most women will never possess the authority, the political influence, and the economic independence of Conway and Schlafly because of the very inequalities that these anti- and post-feminist representatives claim no longer exist. Women in the United States continue to experience disparity in their salaries, have been sexually harassed in their workplaces, and have juggled the roles of wives, mothers, and professionals while scrambling to pay for expensive child care and college tuition.
The post-feminist message that Conway is peddling actually serves to mask the very real sexism that persists in this country, for all women and especially for women of color who still have fewer opportunities than white women. There has been progress but that progress does not connote equality.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 1966 (around the time that Schlafly started her campaign against the women’s rights movement), women made up 13.97 percent of professionals. In 2013, after the work of feminists and women’s rights advocates, that number was 53.23 percent. But the pay gap for these professional women is still 20 percent. That’s an actual fact, not an alternative one.
Dryers for diapers are well and dandy and the role of mommy, as Conway indicates, is vital and valuable. But those things do not run contrary to feminist demands. Feminists are cool with doing diapers as long as men are doing diapers, too. We’re great with moms and many feminists are terrific moms. And we don’t hate men. We just want the same rights, pay, and respect as them. And if Kellyanne and our sisters on the conservative side of the aisle would get in formation, we just might get there.