By Elayne Allen | Guest Contributor
The phrase “conservative feminist” probably annoys people from both the political left and right. Some feminists might assume that a conservative worldview is inherently anti-woman, while a lot of conservatives probably recoil at the very word “feminism.” But both feminists and conservatives misunderstand one another. Once people in our country get a clearer picture of what each side is saying, we realize that the two perspectives are not only compatible, but maybe even complementary.
While feminism and conservatism are both difficult to define, it is possible to point to characteristics within each movement that show how the two are compatible. Conservatives believe in the power of private groups, not the government, to manage society. Conservatives also look to families, religions and the wisdom of predecessors to influence societal norms. Feminism, at its core, seeks the recognition of female dignity. This is accomplished by expanding opportunities for all women from every race and religion. Feminists also want better female leadership in our governments, businesses and religious communities. The two conceptual frameworks are compatible because it is possible to advocate for women without the strong arm of the federal government. In fact, movements for the advancement of women originating in the private sector have often been the most successful. For example, media and entertainment depicting strong, dignified women is a powerful way to demonstrate that women are intelligent and capable in more spheres than the domestic. Not that we should minimize the federal government until it is nonexistent — there are certainly situations that justify government action — but it is perfectly consistent to care deeply for advancement of women and believe that the best way to accomplish it is through the private sphere.
As odd as sounds is for someone to be both conservative and feminist, a closer look tells us these two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive. Does small government equal anti-woman? No, it does not. Sure, some conservative people sometimes hold sexist opinions. But when looking at the conservative set of ideas, there is nothing inherently anti-woman about them. The principle of small government is a way of organizing humankind’s existence socially, not a ploy to disadvantage women. There may be some conservatives who attempt to domesticize women, but I would argue (perhaps uniquely, perhaps not) that this view is not inherent to conservatism. We have to be careful about differentiating between the ideas and the errors of some people who believe those ideas. Just because some conservatives might be sexist doesn’t mean conservatism is sexist. It is OK if some feminists want to reject conservatism, but they should find reasons other than saying all of conservatism itself is sexist.
Conservatives are equally guilty of dismissing some traditionally leftist opinions, such as feminism. Many conservatives seem unwilling to recognize the disparity of the genders (and races for that matter). President Donald Trump’s comments about and actions toward women and some conservatives’ dismissal of his behavior as “locker room talk” indicate serious problems with our society’s view of women. Many conservatives showed an unwillingness to recognize this problem. But there is nothing about conservative principles that prevents us from acknowledging that the president’s comments were wrong. In fact, conservatism arguably calls for condemnation of such behavior. Conservatives strive to uphold the dignity of all human beings, and some of President Trump’s behavior toward women is contrary to this central tenet of conservatism.
The point is that it’s OK to take positions that might not fit neatly in “conservative” or “liberal” world views as they are currently set up. We tend to buy into narratives that demonize the opposing side. This causes us to retreat further into our own political circles. It becomes more and more rare to take a position that is outside your own political dogma. But the dogmas of conservatism and liberalism are artificial. The media presents political opinions as a strict binary between conservatism and liberalism, and Americans seem to have internalized this understanding of politics.
There are countless logical fallacies that shape American politics. As I pointed out, there is nothing inherently opposed to the ideas of conservatism and the ideas of feminism. We can be “conservative,” but that doesn’t mean we have to embrace every single position that is typically conservative. Similarly, you can be a liberal who believes in some conservative ideas. There are more ways to do this other than being a conservative feminist. For example, one can also be an environmentally-conscious conservative.
Our political system is starved of nuance. It seems like we arrive at conclusions without weighing both sides of an argument, and we allow the most compelling side to win out. Instead, we are victims to the rhetoric of the far right and far left. Our loyalty is not to truth but to political ideologies that make false promises.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We are allowed to look at the staunch conservative or liberal set of beliefs and say, “Well, this gets some things right, but it’s not the whole picture.” Neither side is the whole picture because neither offers a complete remedy to our social problems. We have a savior mentality about our political beliefs, as if our liberalism or conservatism is the ultimate solution to all our political problems. This is one reason why we tend to cling closely to one view or the other.
But when we realize that politics won’t save us, it becomes easier to avoid buying wholesale into the promises of conservatism and liberalism. We must look beyond political battles to find our ultimate meanings. Friendships, families, and religious commitments are much more reliable places to live a meaningful life. One of my favorite thinkers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, suggests that we find truth and meaning when we love our neighbors selflessly. In any case, we are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom to look past the rhetoric of political creeds and find out what is true. In doing so, we can begin to understand and maybe even love those with whom we disagree.