The Tea Party is so desperate to remain in the eyes of the media, to monopolize and frame the discussion to fit their agenda (which is, basically, to regain GOP majority in Congress), their female candidates and mouthpieces are increasingly using the term "feminist" to describe themselves. Now, being a liberal as I am, it should not bother me how a politician self-identifies, but identity politics is as strong now as ever, and I cannot sit tight and shut up when the extreme right-wing co-opts such terms. (More should have cried bloody murder, too, when George W. Bush described himself as "compassionate conservative," as he famously lacked compassion when he signed more death warrants than any other elected official at that time in America.)
So, let's examine the concept of this "conservative feminism." This term was popularized by Judge Posner, whom I respect for many of his brilliant opinions in the stream of economic analysis of the law. Alas, I have to disagree with his shortsighted analysis of feminist politics: he lamented that giving women "extra" benefits prima facie discriminated against their male counterparts. Sound familiar? This is precisely the same argument that advocates for a "color-blind" society put forward to defeat affirmative action. Never mind that past discrimination caused severe distortions in the economy of race or gender relations. We don't have to do anything to remedy that, because, you see, we want to treat each person fairly. Amazing what rhetorics can do: equality is now a demand from the conservatives. But what they demand is never actual, substantive equality. The quest for a color-blind and gender-neutral society is always a cry for merely formal equality: emphasis placed on the word treatment in "equal treatment under the law."
Feminists of all stripes agree that formal equality is not sufficient. I may be happy that I can be addressed as Ms., have my own professional career, and even receive equal pay for equal work, but when most women go home at night, they still put in a second shift. Child-care, after school programs, and the like are either so expensive, or their quality is so sub-par that waves of professional women have to decide to forgo developing their careers (for at least a significant amount of time) to properly raise and educate their children. Public transportation in huge swaths of this country is almost non-existent, so parents have to ferry their children to extracurricular activities. Guess which parent will "choose" to take that task on? I could continue, but you got my point. Thus, conservative feminism, which denies these realities, is no feminism at all.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party Feminists argue that they are true feminists, because they are women demanding a spot in the spotlight. They are, as they self-identify, stay-at-home moms (don't even get me started on that) organizing the Tea Party activities while at the soccer field, watching their kids' practice. They are "out there," having an articulate voice on how this country should be run. Ain't that feminism?
My answer to them: No way. Feminism is not about having women out there organizing for the GOP. That's Republican Party politics. Feminism, on the other hand, has a mission to achieve: it was once the vote, the workplace, the sexual harassment laws, and so on. Today's feminism still has a mission. But Tea Party "feminism" is simply taking advantage of all the organizing true feminists have done for them. They are, at best, essentialists, or "cultural feminists," perpetuating the myth of female difference, the idea of different voice.
Cultural feminists believed that women's different voice benefits society, and that's why society should allow women to have a voice: a loud, clear voice of sterling silver, that would balance out the iron-clad male voice. Cultural feminists advanced the argument that women were better at cooperation, peace negotiations, human resource management, primary education, etc., where "soft skills," or "people skills" are required. But women, they said, were probably not as good (or not as properly there) as men at combat, military strategies, spatial organization, driving, mining, long distance running, and the like. Thus, women should have a distinct place in the public sphere, but not the same as men, just not quite. This quaint vision of feminism still prescribes separate spheres to women, but not along the public/domestic dividing line. And this strain of thinking still appears ad nauseam today in women's magazines ("Yes! You Can Have It All! Just Not At The Same Time!") while it continues to deny women's substantive equality.
As this blog on AlterNet.org states:
If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door -- this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights.