The Conservative Answer to Feminism

How one group is trying to change the negative stereotype around what it means to be a right-of-center woman—and usher in a new generation of conservatives.

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Rebecca Nelson
May 6, 2015, 4 p.m.

The ques­tion that most ex­as­per­ated Mindy Finn, she says, came from all sorts of people—friends, fam­ily, old class­mates.

“How can you be a con­ser­vat­ive?”

People were ap­par­ently sur­prised, the 34-year-old GOP cam­paign vet­er­an and di­git­al strategist says, that a thought­ful, well-edu­cated wo­man—she got her bach­el­or’s at Bo­ston Uni­versity and her mas­ter’s at George Wash­ing­ton—would freely as­so­ci­ate with the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

“There’s kind of this tend­ency of view­ing con­ser­vat­ive wo­men as stuck in the past, I think par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the work­place, and that’s just so far from the real­ity that we’re see­ing,” Finn says. The con­ser­vat­ive wo­men she knew were smart and strong and dy­nam­ic, and val­ued a suc­cess­ful ca­reer just as much as hav­ing a fam­ily, she says.

(RE­LATED: Wo­men Aren’t the Prob­lem in Polit­ics)

So she set out to com­bat the neg­at­ive ste­reo­types.

Em­powered Wo­men, the nex­us of that ef­fort, launched in April after months of col­lab­or­a­tion with prom­in­ent wo­men in polit­ics, busi­ness, me­dia, and oth­er in­dus­tries. The non­profit seeks to change the pre­vail­ing ste­reo­type that con­ser­vat­ives are pre­dom­in­antly old men, push­ing back on Demo­crat­ic charges that Re­pub­lic­ans are wa­ging a “war on wo­men,” as well as the no­tion that lib­er­als have a mono­poly on wo­men’s is­sues. And it hopes to fill the void of right-of-cen­ter wo­men’s voices in polit­ics, policy, and cul­ture—help­ing to foster a con­ser­vat­ive al­tern­at­ive to fem­in­ism, which Finn says has be­come a “tox­ic” term.

“We are ab­so­lute ad­voc­ates for wo­men’s op­por­tun­ity and suc­cess,” says Finn, who worked on George W. Bush’s and Mitt Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns be­fore a two-year stint lead­ing stra­tegic part­ner­ships at Twit­ter. At the same time, she says, the group wants to make sure it’s “pre­serving free­dom, fam­ily, and free en­ter­prise as pri­or­it­ies.”

But ste­reo­types of­ten stem from truth, and the cliche that Re­pub­lic­ans have work to do with wo­men is groun­ded in real­ity. Even in 2014, a fruit­ful elec­tion for the GOP, the demo­graph­ic di­vide per­sisted: Wo­men favored Demo­crats by a 4-point mar­gin, ac­cord­ing to Pew, while men pre­ferred GOP can­did­ates by 16 points. Young voters, mean­while, con­tin­ued their trend of sup­port­ing Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates.

(RE­LATED: The IUD Cap­it­al of the U.S.)

Em­powered Wo­men is try­ing to al­ter those trends, start­ing with a writ­ten credo of what the wo­men in the or­gan­iz­a­tion be­lieve. The 13 vague, pur­pose­fully non­par­tis­an af­firm­a­tions in­clude as­ser­tions that the group’s mem­bers are “in­di­vidu­als who think and speak for ourselves” and who “live a ful­filled life, whatever that means to each of us.”

From that mani­festo, which Finn found tested well with young wo­men across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, “it was clear there was a need for a sus­tained ef­fort,” she says, one that put bright, in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ive wo­men in the pub­lic eye to dis­pel the ca­ri­ca­tures of­ten touted by lib­er­al rhet­or­ic.

“See­ing is the first step to­ward be­liev­ing for many wo­men,” says Kel­ly­anne Con­way, the pres­id­ent and CEO of the Polling Com­pany Inc./Wo­men Trend, a polling firm in Wash­ing­ton. “And for many wo­men, to see that there’s even an al­tern­at­ive to the pro­gress­ive, lib­er­al or­tho­doxy that has every wo­man con­stantly think­ing about abor­tion, con­tra­cep­tion, be­ing a vic­tim of the pat­ri­archy,” while at the same time show­ing “an al­tern­at­ive of fun, en­ga­ging ac­com­plished wo­men” helps send that mes­sage, she says.

Em­powered Wo­men is at­tempt­ing to build a net­work of these wo­men across the coun­try. Their April launch, which, in ad­di­tion to the main event in Wash­ing­ton, in­cluded in­aug­ur­al gath­er­ings in New York City, San Fran­cisco, Los Angeles, Den­ver, Hou­s­ton, and Little Rock, drew a slew of con­ser­vat­ive wo­men, in­clud­ing politi­cians on their way up, like fresh­man Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York—the young­est wo­man ever elec­ted to Con­gress—and Bar­bara Com­stock of Vir­gin­ia.

(RE­LATED: Poll: Amer­ic­an Men Em­bra­cing Gender Equal­ity)

The or­gan­iz­a­tion also plans to con­duct re­search and polling in­to what col­lege-edu­cated wo­men in their 20s and 30s think and want, and use the find­ings to shape its mes­saging and policy aims. Be­cause Em­powered Wo­men is a 501(c)3, it won’t lobby Con­gress for spe­cif­ic policies; in­stead, it will use its re­search to edu­cate the pub­lic about policies its com­munity sup­ports. Along the way, it will en­cour­age the wo­men in the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s com­munity to speak out, writ­ing op-eds in main­stream me­dia out­lets and wo­men’s magazines about the cause.

A cru­cial com­pon­ent of re­shap­ing the con­ver­sa­tion around wo­men will be de­fend­ing against some Demo­crats’ claims that Re­pub­lic­ans are anti-wo­man. That brand of lib­er­al rhet­or­ic back­fired in last year’s midterms, Finn says, par­tic­u­larly in Col­or­ado, where then-Sen. Mark Ud­all’s strategy of cast­ing Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger Cory Gard­ner as against re­pro­duct­ive rights—earn­ing the former the nick­name “Mark Uter­us”—fell flat. Al­tern­at­ively, Em­powered Wo­men seeks to ex­pand the scope of wo­men’s is­sues bey­ond abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion.

“That really looks at just a slice of a wo­man’s life: her abil­ity to re­pro­duce, her role, if she chooses, to be a moth­er,” says Leslie Brad­shaw, a man­aging part­ner at di­git­al product agency Made By Many and a mem­ber of Em­powered Wo­men’s New York City chapter. “It doesn’t look at the whole 360 of what it means to be a wo­man.”

What mat­ters to wo­men mat­ters to most voters, the group con­tends: the eco­nomy, na­tion­al se­cur­ity, health care, im­mig­ra­tion. But ac­cord­ing to a Pew study from last year, more than half of wo­men voters say abor­tion is a “very im­port­ant” factor in de­cid­ing who they should vote for.

(RE­LATED: GOP Lead­ers Pull Abor­tion Bill After Re­volt by Wo­men, Mod­er­ates)

Still, Finn says that the new gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­vat­ive wo­men—wo­men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, Em­powered Wo­men’s tar­get demo­graph­ic—has an eye to­ward “a much broad­er set of is­sues” than the wo­men who came be­fore them.

That gen­er­a­tion gap in­dic­ates a brand­ing prob­lem, says Brad­shaw, who used to do polit­ic­al con­sult­ing with JESS3, a Wash­ing­ton-based cre­at­ive agency she foun­ded.

“When people think of ‘con­ser­vat­ive’ and ‘Re­pub­lic­an,’ they think, ‘Those are those white guys that make de­cisions about my body,’” she says. “And that’s not the case. That’s not this move­ment.”

This ef­fort is dis­tinct from oth­er Re­pub­lic­an wo­men-fo­cused groups for that reas­on, Finn says. Rather than simply provide a place for con­ser­vat­ive wo­men to en­gage each oth­er, or pro­mot­ing wo­men can­did­ates through PACs like Right­NOW Wo­men and Wo­men Lead, Em­powered Wo­men wants to lead a cam­paign to ush­er in the next gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­vat­ive wo­men.

“There’s been mo­nu­ment­al shifts in the last 20 years in terms of wo­men in the work­place, in terms of the makeup of our fam­il­ies,” Finn says. “And we want to make sure that our voices and pri­or­it­ies are sur­faced so that we’re able to align what’s be­ing done in the pub­lic sphere with what people want.”

Lisa Cam­ooso Miller, a part­ner at pub­lic af­fairs firm Blue­print Com­mu­nic­a­tions and former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, says it helps that Finn straddles the Gen X/mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion line, be­cause “for so long, the spokespeople for the Re­pub­lic­an wo­men have been wo­men that are a gen­er­a­tion older than I am,” she says.

But more than her age, it’s Finn’s repu­ta­tion that car­ries weight.

“She’s well re­garded by the mod­er­ate wo­men in our party and by the strict con­ser­vat­ive wo­men in our party,” Miller says. “I think that that’s what gives this more prom­ise than maybe any oth­er ef­fort be­fore.”

With con­tinu­ing ef­fort, Finn and her grow­ing net­work hope to help wo­men feel more con­fid­ent, as­sert­ive, and en­ter­pris­ing. She’s re­luct­ant to char­ac­ter­ize the or­gan­iz­a­tion in terms of fem­in­ism, she says, be­cause the word, as tested by her group, has be­come a light­ning rod for con­tro­versy.

“I ab­so­lutely be­lieve in what fem­in­ism is sup­posed to stand for, which is equal op­por­tun­ity of the sexes,” she says. But Finn, like Madonna be­fore her, con­siders her­self more of a “hu­man­ist.”

And, if Finn and Em­powered Wo­men are suc­cess­ful, they hope the in­credu­lity of “How can you be a con­ser­vat­ive?” will be flipped on its head: “How can’t you be?”

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