Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s hard out there for Republican women in politics.
Six female Republican US senators are running for reelection this year, four of them facing tough, competitive races (West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith face Democratic challengers but are widely expected to win their races).
Already, women are radically underrepresented among Republican politicians. Of 100 US senators, just nine are Republican women (nearly twice as many are Democratic women). The House is even worse: of 435 members of Congress, 101 are women – but just 13 of those women are Republicans.
Female Republican politicians need near-yogic abilities to twist themselves into all of the conflicting postures their politics and their party demand. They are members of a largely anti-feminist party, but their very presence there as women makes them people who also benefit – and need to benefit – from feminist gains. Not surprisingly, some conservative women have already abandoned a party that doesn’t value them as equals. More should follow.
Republican voters are much less likely than Democratic ones to believe gender discrimination is a problem, researchers from Stony Brook University found in a 2017 study. They are less likely to say that we need more women in office and more likely to say that efforts to give women equal rights to men have gone too far. According to a CNN poll in 2017, one in five Republicans says that the country would be worse off with more women in elected office (just 2% of Democrats said the same).
And Republican politicians routinely stake out anti-feminist positions, including opposition to abortion rights, opposition to expansive and universal free childcare and paid parental leave, opposition to widespread and affordable contraception access and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
Republican female candidates are competing in a male-dominated space while their party and the evangelical leaders who campaign for them tell a conservative base that women should complement men, not compete with them. And that base is also overwhelmingly White and male and overwhelmingly supportive of White male candidates. This is perhaps why every Republican female senator, and all but one Republican congresswoman, is White.
When elected, many of these right-wing women use their positions to undermine gender equality and block policy changes that would make it easier for women to work and parent, to live free from discrimination, to afford good health care and to make their own reproductive choices – a crucial part of what allows women to follow their dreams and stay financially afloat.
But to get elected, they need women – more of whom vote than men and more of whom lean left – to vote for them. And they need conservative men to vote for them, too, despite skepticism among some men of female ambition and power-seeking. Which means these female politicians have to lean into that same skepticism, often by emphasizing their status as wives and mothers – while actually being ambitious, power-seeking women themselves.
This is presumably how you get Republican women like Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who signed onto three different anti-abortion bills her first week in office, claiming that she is “not familiar” with the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump bragging that he grabs women by the genitals – an incredible claim for her to make about perhaps the biggest bombshell of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump’s comments on the tape inspired the pink “pussyhats” donned by women around the world at the Women’s March, held the day after his inauguration. It is simply beyond reasonable to believe that Loeffler isn’t familiar with this story and doesn’t understand how the President’s comments insulted and offended women the nation over.
But she’s not the only one who has to deny reality and smile in the face of an insult in order to seek power as a conservative woman. Sen. Martha McSally may have thought she was enjoying Trump’s support when she was invited to speak at his rally in Arizona, but instead, he took to the stage and insulted her, rushing her up to the podium and saying “they don’t want to hear this, Martha.” Then he invited three out-of-state Republican officeholders, only one of whom is running for reelection this year – in California – to speak for longer than she did.
Even Nigel Farage, a pro-Brexit conservative Brit, got more mic time at the Arizona rally than McSally, who is polling behind Democrat Mark Kelly in the state. McSally has notably voted to defund Planned Parenthood and blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst is struggling to retain her Senate seat, and her full-throated support of Trump seems to be hurting her. Ernst used her time in the Senate to advocate against full abortion rights. In the middle of a pandemic, she (with Loeffler and 18 other US senators) asked the FDA to ban medication abortion and qualify it as a “public health hazard”– even though it is a common way to end a pregnancy that can be done largely at home, reducing the risk of Covid-19 infection.
In Maine, Susan Collins is at risk of losing her race after becoming a target of Democratic fundraising over her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh stood accused of sexual assault (an allegation he vehemently denied). Trying to adhere to conservative talking points has her in a corner, too: In a debate against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon this week, Collins said, “I do not believe systemic racism is a problem in the state of Maine.” For the record, Maine is the least racially and ethnically diverse state in the nation.
Conservative women have always had to navigate challenging terrain, trying to personally progress while adhering to an ideology that opposes many policies shown to promote women’s progress. We know, for example, that women do better the world over in places where contraception and abortion are legal and accessible, where women have equal access to the labor market and are paid fairly and where commitment to gender equality is high.
Yet the GOP flat-out opposes abortion and routinely blocks the most effective equal pay and anti-discrimination measures. The Republican Party claims they simply run the best candidates regardless of gender – while badly-underrepresented Republican women are left arguing that they are just as capable and able as men in politics, and that women face few barriers because of their gender, despite ample evidence otherwise. Too often that leaves them jumping through ridiculous hoops: claiming they don’t see the misogyny that is in front of their faces, staking out territory as “strong women” while tolerating disrespect from men.
Feminists want more women in office because women are more than half of the population, and minority rule is undemocratic and unfair. But feminists want feminists in office: Women and men who will push policies to level the playing field for women and people of color.
Many conservative women in politics want it both ways. They want to enjoy feminist gains while working for a party that actively tries to thwart the ability of other women to see similar successes and pursue their own ambitions. To succeed, these Republican women have to make impossible deals in the pursuit of power. They can’t be surprised – or expect pity – when the deal falls apart.