Is a 'feminist conservative' an oxymoron? / Owen Bell

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The short answer: increasingly, yes.

The fact is, feminism has a conservatism problem. Across the world, those who identify as conservatives are far less likely to say they are feminists. To some, this may appear to be a non-issue; does it really matter that David Cameron refused to wear a t-shirt with “This is what a feminist looks like” written across it? But the reality is that conservatism’s reluctance to embrace feminism has been to the detriment of women worldwide. In the United States, it resulted in the election of a man who openly joked about committing sexual assault. In the Middle East, women’s basic human rights are being constantly denied by social conservatives in the name of tradition and religious piety. Women will never truly be empowered if roughly half of the political spectrum either denies that women do not have the same rights and opportunities as men, or actively seeks to relegate women to second class status.

In the West, the classic conservative objection to feminism is as follows. Feminism is an outdated ideology that comes from a time when women were oppressed. Nowadays, feminists have given up trying to achieve equality because they already have it. Instead, the movement has regressed to a small minority of far-left social justice warriors, who seek to blame men for everything, perpetuate a pedantic and authoritarian political correctness, and pretend that there are no meaningful differences between the sexes. Some religious conservatives believe feminism runs contrary to their religious beliefs - feminism must be wrong because God created men and women differently. On the other hand, you have libertarian conservatives who believe feminism is trying to deny women legitimate forms of sexualised expression; the No More Page 3 campaign being a case in point.

To a significant extent, there is much that the feminist movement can do to address these objections. Partly by directly arguing against them. Feminists should continue to give examples of ways that women are still disadvantaged, particularly outside of the Western world. They should point out that much of the progress we have made with women’s rights is a direct result of the actions the feminist movement has taken, not merely the inevitability of greater rights being granted to women over time. To the religious conservatives, feminists should use religious arguments for feminist goals. For instance, the sexualisation of women runs directly contrary to the Christian God’s ideals of living modestly and not tempting men into sexual misconduct.

There is a positive conservative case to be made for many feminist goals. Increasing female participation in science and technology would make the world a more advanced place to live, because science and technology companies would have a greater pool of talent. In addition to this, attention could be paid to the ways in which some feminists address issues. Instead of talking in tone that smacks of excessive political correctness and moral superiority, as some feminists do, they should talk to conservatives using plain English and with respect for the conservative as an equal, and not as an irredeemable adversary. In my experience, using terms like ‘intersectionality’, ‘mansplaining’ or even ‘patriarchy’ are ineffective at convincing conservatives, even if they accurately describe the world we live in.

However, the potential appeal of feminism to conservatives has some severe limitations. If feminists decide to make ‘hot-button’ issues like abortion truly feminist ones, they will inevitably alienate the religious right. Some socialist feminists have declared the issue of cuts to public services a feminist issue too, arguing that austerity measures enacted by the Conservative Party disproportionately affect women, and so must be opposed on a feminist basis. An obvious example would be cuts to childcare services making it harder for women to be employed. But this has the obvious problem of preventing fiscal conservatives from being feminists. On the other hand, the ‘feminisation’ of these issues makes feminism more meaningful in terms of policy, rather than simply being in favour of abstract notions of equality.

The increasingly leftist composition of the feminist movement in the West has made a feminist conservative an oxymoron. In the West, women are disadvantaged at least as much by the nature of the economy, as by social ideologies such as religions or traditional customs. But nearly all economic policy areas are divided along left-right lines. Take for example, the issue of whether to have quotas for women in certain positions of employment. In Norway, half of a company’s board of directors must be women. Most feminists I know praise such as system, because they say it is a necessary counterbalance to social structures that prevent women from succeeding at work. But for conservatives and other believers in absolute economic freedom, the right of the company to hire who they want is fundamental, and should not be diminished in the name of gender equality, even if gender equality is desirable.

Feminists would benefit the world immeasurably if they talk to conservatives about feminist issues, even if they fail to convince conservatives of the truthfulness of the feminist position. Many conservatives aren’t even aware of problems like the gendered nature of education, the rates of sexual assault women face, or the unflattering and caricatured way women are presented in the media. Talking to conservatives about these issues makes them think twice, and inclines them to analyse policies with the effects on women in mind. The problem with many feminists is that by not actively seeking a conservative audience, they make conservatives ignorant of feminist issues, however unintentionally. If feminists continue to isolate themselves, they do the women they claim to represent an immense disservice.

Written by Owen Bell

Artwork by Asha Fontelle