Earlier this month, prominent progressive feminist Jessica Valenti published “The Myth of Feminism.” Although I agree with Valenti that feminism is often used as a political tool, I marveled at her shamelessness in refusing to acknowledge she and her political party helped turn it into one, and I’m flabbergasted how much credit she gives herself for supposedly making feminism “accessible” despite actually pushing people away from an movement intended to empower women.
There were several worthy responses pushing back against Valenti’s declaration, even from those who do not necessarily consider themselves feminists; RedState front-page contributor Kira Davis asked who gets to define feminism in her thoughtful rebuttal, and Alexandra DeSanctis at National Review argued this is an example of how third-wave feminists devalue conservative women.
Karla Jacobs recently published “Who Says Conservatives Can’t Talk About Women’s Issues?” at ArcDigital, while even at a mainstream organization like CNN, Helen Alvaré stated “pro-life feminists are everywhere” and disbelievers should “open their eyes.”
As Kira skillfully argued here, Valenti is not the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to identify as a feminist, and Valenti’s premise that feminism only belongs to those who support policies such as abortion is shockingly narrow-minded and short-sighted.
I identify as a feminist, wrote about pro-life feminism for RedState, and argued at National Review conservatives should not dismiss the feminist movement entirely, because there are obstacles and challenges women face that conservatives should acknowledge and address with conservative solutions. However, as I said in my National Review essay, there are certainly aspects of the modern feminist movement that are extreme — and Valenti’s column is one such example.
When prominent feminists are determined to shut women like me out of the movement, it only forces us to work even harder to have our voices and concerns heard by the modern feminist movement and to convince other conservatives that, despite its exclusivity, the modern feminist movement does share some values and make some valid points.
One example? Valenti is correct when she says that Republicans have begun using “feminism” as a way to pressure Democrats into supporting female Republicans and their nominations or candidacies.
But Valenti neglects to acknowledge Republicans learned this tactic from many on the Left — including her. The Left weaponized feminism and sexism by arguing that any Republican opposition to, or criticism of, a Democrat nominee or candidate could only be due to sexism, rather than due to legitimate reasons or ideological disagreements. As I note in this piece about gendered insults and harassment, there is a difference between substantive criticism of a woman and criticism that relies solely on her sex or that uses gendered-based insults.
It was the Republican Party that rightly argued that people should be judged based on their qualifications, not their sex. (Note: I personally believe that representation is important, but the way to encourage increased representation is to ensure qualified women run for office, not vote for an unqualified woman simply because of her sex).
If Valenti had taken the opportunity to also criticize her own party for its similar mistakes, her piece perhaps could have acted as a fresh voice pointing out hard truths. However, instead she continued to use feminism as a weapon.
Victimhood has unfortunately become a popular tactic for both parties, and neither political party is right to disingenuously use feminism this way. However, Valenti is hypocritical and dishonest to not acknowledge Democrats first made a habit of co-opting feminism to further their own political goals.
Furthermore, it is rich that Valenti is adamant that no conservatives can identify with the feminist movement even as many progressives use the feminist label to establish themselves as progressive heroes while simultaneously mistreating women.
Bill Clinton has been credibly accused of sexual assault and rape — yet he was still present on the 2016 campaign trail. As Noah Rothman pointed out, it was only after Hillary Clinton lost that the male Clinton was finally forced out of progressive politics — but only because he was considered a liability, not because of how he treated women. In the 1990s, Democrats and feminists supported the leader of the free world engaging in sexual behavior with a college intern — perhaps the largest power disparity and abuse of power that is possible. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was held up as a feminist hero and icon despite her role in discrediting and demeaning her husband’s victims, though she now hypocritically argues all women should be automatically believed.
It was an open secret in Hollywood that film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted women and forced women into unwanted sexual activity — yet he was welcomed in Democrat circles, and the Clinton campaign still associated with him despite Lena Dunham reportedly warning the campaign to stay away from him. It’s further noteworthy that Weinstein attempted to use partisan issues to get back into the good graces of the Left and thought it would succeed because that game plan did work for so long (although, to the Left’s credit, it did not this time).
Moreover, a woman on the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign team came forward about a fellow campaign staffer who had been repeatedly sexually harassing her — and not only did Clinton ignore the advice to to fire the harasser, the campaign instead effectively punished the victim by transitioning her to another role, as if that would stop the man from harassing other colleagues.
Who is Jessica Valenti to say that I cannot be a feminist, when I am the one who did not ignore these issues with Clinton and refused to support Donald Trump for numerous reasons, including his own many issues regarding women?
Consider former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who allegedly physically and sexually abused several women and reportedly called his Sri Lankan-born girlfriend his “brown slave.” Because he was a progressive champion, “a number” of one victim’s friends discouraged her from reporting Schneiderman because he was so important to the Democrat cause; according to the New Yorker, her friends thought Schneiderman “was too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose.”
As NR’s DeSanctis recently noted, it’s evident left-leaning men use their support of progressive issues, specifically abortion, to establish themselves as progressive heroes and in an effort to make them immune from criticism.
Instead of trying to shut out those who want to empower women and reduce obstacles faced solely by women, perhaps Valenti should be concerned with how her beliefs are being co-opted by monsters to find shelter among the feminist movement. Perhaps she should look for more allies among the conservative movement, since the ability to care about women’s issues is not and should not be limited to one party.
Lastly, Valenti writes “the reason [conservatives are] able to claim feminism at all” is because feminists like herself “worked to make feminism more accessible.” This is so narrow-minded and false that it is offensive.
I did not begin to identify as a feminist because of anything Jessica Valenti did or said. If anything, Valenti pushes people away from the feminist movement.
I became a feminist because of my own experiences.
I became a feminist because I personally experienced challenges that were in my path solely because I was a woman.
I became a feminist because I realized my experiences were being routinely dismissed by people who not only could not understand them but also refused to try to understand them.
How can Jessica Valenti say she helped to make feminism more accessible to women like me, when the truth is she has tried to push women like me out of the movement for years?
How dare Jessica Valenti say she helped women like me become feminists, when the truth is many of us came to it organically, after experiencing inequality, sexism, or misogyny firsthand or after being dismissed, condescended, or ignored?
The truth is that people like Jessica Valenti poisoned the word for me and for many others so much we actually had to overcome the partisan baggage they had attached to the word.
Feminism should not be used as a political weapon. The progressive view of “feminism” isn’t the only one; feminism isn’t a means to further progressive goals. When feminism is used as a tool to divide us further, it damages the overall movement of empowering all women, encouraging and supporting their choices, and reducing issues like workplace inequality or sexual harassment.
When people like Jessica Valenti turn feminism into a partisan issue, those who oppose her react accordingly and treat it the same way — which causes people to tune the discussion out and therefore only hurts the overall goal of improving women’s circumstances.
Jessica Valenti can try as much as she’d like to proliferate the falsehood that conservative feminism is a myth and that conservative feminists like me do not exist. But the original feminist heroes were pro-life suffragettes — and I refuse to give those women, and the “feminist” label, up to the progressive movement.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.