Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For a moment, it looked like right-wing women were breaking ranks.
Brett Cooper, a commentator for The Daily Wire, took aim at the site’s founder, Ben Shapiro, for his comments bashing the new Barbie movie. “I have some terrible news specifically for Ben Shapiro,” she said, after watching the film that he had called “feminist propaganda.” “I had a great time watching it.”
She further warned, “Not all female empowerment is bad. I know we criticize feminism … But do not allow your hatred of those ideas and those cultural movements to make you angry about anything that uplifts a woman.” (The distributor of “Barbie” and CNN share a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.)
This week, though, that tentative appeal to women’s empowerment ground to a halt, as right-wing women, like podcaster Megyn Kelly, attacked the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) after their disappointing performance in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“I’m thrilled they lost,” Kelly proclaimed, arguing that the team’s “woke activism” led to the loss. Clay Travis, the conservative radio host who joined her as a guest, cheered her on. “You’re firing harder on this, I bet, than almost any man will who’s doing sports talk radio this morning.” (Kelly’s vitriol echoes that spewed by former President Donald Trump on social media, in a bizarre replay of his animosity toward star player Megan Rapinoe in 2019.)
It isn’t only Trump who is falling back on an old playbook in showing spite toward the USWNT. For while it might seem reasonable to assume that such petty meanness, especially toward athletes who are heroes to many little girls, might hurt him with women voters, these two events — right-wing women supporting the Barbie movie and bashing the women’s soccer team — reveal another reality.
They may seem a world apart, but they are both examples of the tricky, ongoing balancing act conservative women face as they reap the rewards of feminist victories while advancing the politics of antifeminism.
Women antifeminists had it easier in an earlier generation. When conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly organized to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she did so by donning a housedress and presenting herself as an ordinary housewife, the embodiment of traditional gender roles and femininity. Never mind that Schlafly was far from a homemaker.
A political candidate, author and activist, Schlafly juggled her anti-ERA efforts with law school, earning a law degree in 1978. But she and other self-styled housewife activists held themselves out as women who worked in, and defended, the private sphere of home and family.
Housewife activists would continue to be a mainstay of the right in the decades that followed. But by the 1990s, they were competing with a new model of right-wing antifeminists: women who emphasized their professional training and commitment to their careers.
These included the women of the Independent Women’s Forum, founded in the early 1990s, and antifeminist lawyers, such as Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, who leveraged their attacks on feminism into robust media careers. They traded Schlafly’s housedresses and deference for leopard-print miniskirts and ribald jokes. And they used economic independence and changing cultural norms to forge personal lives and professional personae that didn’t rely on being wives or mothers.
Perhaps because their lives and careers often looked similar to those of feminists, they regularly bolstered their antifeminist credentials. Ingraham’s first book, “The Hillary Trap,” was a broadside against liberal feminism; Coulter once fantasized about stripping women of the right to vote.
In recent years, right-wing women antifeminists have added a new argument to their portfolio, one that came up in Kelly’s tirade against the USWNT. As so often happens on Kelly’s show, her attacks on the team quickly transformed into attacks on trans women.
Rapinoe, she said, supports the idea of trans women playing on the national team, just another reason the team deserved to lose. The argument was part of Kelly’s broader assertion that trans rights are anti-woman, and the real defenders of women’s rights today are those people who work to deny trans people access to facilities that match their gender identity (and refuse, as Kelly does, to use their preferred pronouns).
Over the past few decades, right-wing women have adopted what seems like a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of antifeminism. It is a way of keeping the patriarchy palatable: You don’t have to be a tradwife to reject feminism.
But in reality, as a woman antifeminist, you can have your cake, so long as you don’t really eat it. You can have a high-powered, high-paying job, so long as you argue against equal pay. You can be bawdy and enjoy sex — no “myth of the female orgasm” here — so long as you roll your eyes at rape culture and insist the #MeToo movement went too far.
You can beat the drum of “women’s rights” and defend tooth-and-nail women’s sports, so long as you only do so to denigrate trans women. You can celebrate “Barbie,” so long as you don’t really buy into its criticism of the patriarchy.
Which is a reminder that, when it looks like right-wing women are breaking ranks, nothing fundamental is actually changing. It’s at best a bit of sleight of hand, one they’ve been practicing for decades.