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The Feminist Ghost
at the Conservative Political Action Conference

by Jo Freeman

 Lurking in the background of the 30th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which met in Arlington Virginia from January 30 to February 1, was the ghost of the feminist movement. The issues raised by feminism are no longer front and center, as they were when about a hundred conservatives from four organizations first gathered 30 years ago, but they lingered like an ethereal presence, providing foil and target for speeches and exhibits.

This years conference celebrated the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment by honoring Phyllis Schlafly at the first evenings banquet. Schlafly recounted her battle against the ERA, which failed to be ratified by the June 1982 deadline, from her "kitchen table" despite a bipartisan establishment who said she could not win. She described the pro-ERA leadership as "a motley collection of harridans, harpies, hags and disheveled lesbians."

Schlafly is an old war horse of conservatism, whose personal priorities have always been foreign policy and national defense. Schlafly first came to public prominence in 1964 by distributing three million copies of her self-published booklet, A Choice Not an Echo, advocating Barry Goldwaters election. Her reward was election as First Vice President of the National Federation of Republican Women. When the anti-Goldwater forces were retaking the Republican Party after his defeat, they blocked her ascension to the presidency of the NFRW in 1967. She left to build her own following through a newsletter and the Eagle Forum, the entity she founded in 1972. After the ERA was sent to the states in 1972, opposition to it gave her a national platform. While making her reputation as an antifeminist, Schlafly continued to snip at the heels of the Republican Party, going to every Republican national convention to help remove feminists and moderates of all stripes from the slightest shred of position or influence.

One of her protégés was Elaine Donnelly, a young woman from Michigan who helped Schlafly with STOP ERA and accompanied her to most of the Republican conventions in the last 25 years. In the 1980 Presidential campaign Schlafly had Donnelly put on Reagans National Womens Policy Advisory Board, and eventually appointed to government advisory committees on military women.. Donnelly subsequently set up her own organization, the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), to "keep women from undermining the strength of the strongest military in the world."

Donnelly was given a special award for grass roots activism at last years CPAC. This year she followed Ollie Norths screed at the French (for opposing a US War in Iraq) with an equally vehement denunciation of Hillary Clinton. Donnelly claimed that now that Clinton is on the Senate Armed Services Committee she might insist that women be assigned to combat units. Last year the CMR charged the Clinton administration with "infiltrating" women into units being trained in field surveillance that might encounter combat conditions. Donnelly claimed credit for getting Bush to change the units to "male-only" status. CMR also objects to any training, even a few weeks of basic training, being coed.

The two poster girls of the conservative movements are Katherine Harris and Ann Coulter, judging by the audience response to their speeches and the numbers who lined up to have books signed. Harris came to fame as Floridas Secretary of State who made decisions favorable to the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Now a Member of Congress, she provided a low-key policy analysis. Coulter, a former lawyer who rode the anti-Bill Clinton wave as a writer, gave a series of one liners, more resembling political satire than political thought. She said The Democratic party should rename itself the Adultery Party."

Most of the podium speakers were regulars on the conservative conference circuit. Among the few new women was Kimberly Schuld, who recently published a Guide to Feminist Organizations while working for the Capital Research Center. Schuld told the CPAC audience that the "feminist movement doesnt have the support of ordinary women. It feeds at the public trough" by taking federal money and using it to lobby for feminist goals. Her Guide describes 35 organizations, foundations and interest groups aimed at women or womens issues "inside the Beltway," though it misses a few and includes several located in San Francisco, New York, and places far away from Washington, DC. In her Introduction Schuld says donors are her target audience; they should be careful about funding organizations whose views are "at odds with their own."

While claiming that the Guide is based on "publicly available information" Schuld demonstrates a vast ignorance about womens history in general and feminism in particular. She says NOW "was created largely because gender was not included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act" (it was put in on Feb. 8, 1964 by a House teller vote of 168 to 133). She also thinks that the slogan "The personal is the political" originated in the Progressive era and means that "every womans personal struggle, every difficult situation or emotional problem could be explained by defects in Americas political system." These and the many other misstatements of fact undermine the veracity of her Guide.

While feminism (and Hillary Clinton) are still favorite targets, abortion, a staple of a conservative ideology which otherwise extolls individual freedom and personal choice, was barely mentioned. This years "sex" talk was given by Dr. Meg Meeker, a practicing physician in northern Michigan concerned with the "epidemic" of venereal disease. She said more womens lives are lost to cervical cancer than to HIV/AIDS. Advocating abstinence among the unmarried, she said sexual health is more important than sexual freedom.

None of the many explicitly pro-life organizations were among the 74 official conference co-sponsors, though some did buy space among the 90 + booths in the exhibit hall. Opposition to personal choice on matters of sex has become embedded in conservative ideology; its not even discussed.

Sex aside, appeals to women are still actively made by conservatives. Three of this years co-sponsors were groups specifically focused on women, all of whom had booths in the exhibit hall. In addition, the Eagle Forum, Schlaflys personal front group, was given exhibit space right outside the entrance to the meeting hall. Missing was the Independent Womens Forum, which is better known than the ones that were there. Concerned Women for America (CWA) was founded in 1979 after Beverly LaHaye saw a TV interview given by Betty Friedan. Saying "that woman doesnt represent me," she called together seven female friends who put a notice in the newspaper asking for help to fight the ERA. CWA believes that "organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women have resulted in a serious decline in the nations moral structure."

CWA is a Christian organization, whose purpose is "to translate biblical values into public policy." LaHaye is the wife of Rev. Tim LaHaye, a nationally known evangelical minister and author of Christian novels. From their home in San Diego they have conducted Family Life Seminars teaching Biblical principles for living. She has also written several books on these topics. CWA claims to be "the largest public policy womens organization in the nation" with 500,000 members. It defines a member as anyone who has donated money, signed a petition, or otherwise indicated an active interest in the previous two years. Its action-alert e-mail is sent to 17,000 people. An undisclosed number are organized into prayer/action chapters to work locally, coordinated by 38 appointed state leaders. About ten percent of its "membership" are men, and men hold half of the leadership positions in the national organization, including vice president for government relations and chief lobbyist. CWA works with other "pro-family" organizations on judicial nominations, education, opposition to acceptance of homosexuals, and national sovereignty issues.

Although formed to oppose feminist ideas, the CWA has extended its reach to anything that "concerns the family." These include opposition to stem cell research, cloning, CEDAW (the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and sex education. It has also published policy papers on "School Prayer and Religious Liberty," and "Funding Faith-Based Organizations." One policy paper attacks Margaret Sanger, an exponent of birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, for creating a "eugenic plan for black Americans" which would "restrict many believe exterminate the black population." Although its Washington lobby works closely with the Eagle Forum, it has occasionally called a truce with feminists. Last fall it co-signed a letter with the National Organization for Women to CBS objecting to its airing of the Victorias Secret Fashion Show as selling women rather than clothes.

 

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