Conservative Women and the Intra-Conservatism Debate

Published June 9, 2019

Public Discourse

The recent flurry of intra-conservative debate has started a much needed discussion—although I wish it had begun with an idea-forward piece rather than one aimed at a particular man standing in for a group. Luckily, I don’t fit neatly in any of these groups, and maybe for the first time in my life I’m glad that I’m an outsider. In fact, looking at the faces and voices engaging in the fray leads me to believe there are a lot of outsiders, namely the conservative women whose voices are conspicuously missing from this discourse.

In April, referring to another confrontation (the broader conservative–progressive one), Helen Andrews wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times asking, “Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?” The piece asks why there are no prominent conservative women, like a Phyllis Schlafly, who will come forward to fill the “role as America’s foremost anti-feminist.” To which the short answer is: an anti-feminist woman isn’t likely to be the one proudly brandishing the banner and shouting out battle orders on the front lines; we’re busy practicing what we believe in the trenches of our homes. There are many good, hardworking—yet unknown—women who cover the domus and related issues. Having learned some lessons from the Schlafly generation (and having internalized social conservative beliefs), many do not believe that the politically ambitious route is their way to win the war.

And so, to ask and answer a related question: Where are the conservative women in this intra-conservatism debate? The shot fired by Sohrab Ahmari at First Things prompted a debate, whether on Twitter or web-magazines, that has been almost exclusively between men (with a notable exception being Stephanie Slade’s piece in Reason).

Conservative Women Accept a Hidden Life Because They Believe in Conservatism

Conservatism, more than being a legislative agenda, is a philosophy. One of its fundamental tenets is that man qua man is capable of great good and great evil; all questions of how best to order society and politics must be built around maximizing the former and minimizing the latter as much as possible, in this broken world. However, a proper conservatism self-consciously realizes that man’s intellect is darkened and his will is weak; even the persons doing the philosophizing and ordering are themselves faulty and capable of evil. We all have blind spots, and we all have the capacity for selfish ambition; and so one should be cautious even when judging what good government is. One heuristic of conservatism—that many, including my EPPC colleague Roger Scruton, eloquently elevate to a doctrine—is to prefer, if possible, the way things have been done already. That is: there is good reason to find merit in what has historically been tested by time and circumstance.

One of the outcomes of thinking along these lines is that we conservatives tend to respect the natural asymmetry between men and women. If socially conservative women firmly believe that “the presence of parents acts as a protective factor for children from earliest childhood on up,” or that simple maternal presence makes a difference (as wife, mother, writer, and brilliant cultural analyst Mary Eberstadt wrote in Home-Alone America), then they will put those beliefs into action. Many, if they are able, will be home full time. And more often than not, staying at home requires opting out of prominent positions where these women’s opinions would have been heard and considered more broadly.

This is an example of a “role constraint,” one of four “hypothetical constraints” that could explain the scarcity of “women in ‘high’ politics,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick observes in her book Political Woman“Men’s roles and women’s roles complement one another and structure relations between the sexes,” she writes. Knowing their role, and knowing the good that can come of it for their children and the society at large, women make choices that sometimes set their primary roles as wife and mother at odds with their other roles. “The traditional role system,” Kirkpatrick wrote, “makes it difficult for a woman to begin a political career before middle age; makes it difficult for her to change her place of residence; makes it difficult for her to develop the skills and acquire the experience needed for a political career.”

To the younger crowd, Political Woman may feel dated. But Kirkpatrick’s conclusions still need to be heard: women don’t need to, and shouldn’t have to, ape men in order to be heard and respected. And “‘normal’ women who marry, have children, nurture their families, [and] love their husbands” can, and do, go on to have political careers, if they want them. Kirkpatrick herself lived what she advocated: she was a wife, and for a while was a stay-at-home mom, then she worked part-time at Trinity College, and eventually she went back to school to finish her PhD.

The point here is not that we can, or should, be like Jeane Kirkpatrick, only that the life of a woman is seasonal, and that socially conservative women who value marriage and family―even when they are highly driven, intelligent, and knowledgeable―will necessarily privilege their family over outside engagement. The latter point holds especially in our current situation, in which constant outside engagement requires continual activity on social media, which is not feasible for most of these women. Many such mothers are also involved in their children’s schools, or they homeschool. Those with strong religious commitments also give time and energy to that area of life. Then there are all the women who work outside the home―who by the end of the day, after tending to their material and relational priorities (which are philosophical priorities), don’t have the wherewithal for cultural and political engagement. Another fruit of the woman’s relational focus and tacit understanding of the complexity of human life is the underappreciated perspective that brash, confrontational public arguments about abstract philosophical topics produce more heat than light, and are often best avoided.

Conservative Men Need to Man Up

Obviously there are reasons other than role constraints for the scarcity of vocal conservative women in the current discussion of conservatism and its mission in the political realm. Indeed, some of those reasons are unhealthy elements within conservative circles. I see two in particular: the censorship of women, which sometimes borders on suppression, and the failure to seek out and cultivate wise, temperate, intelligent women for the conservative cause.

If conservative men value the women in their midst, then they need to make a greater effort to cultivate conservative women’s talents, be flexible and work around the heavy schedules most women keep, open publishing spaces for them, reference their work, and do a better job of promoting them. Again, it is our philosophy that acknowledges an asymmetry between men and women. It runs counter to this to operate as if the marketplace of ideas should be a meritocracy in which men’s and women’s voices compete to be published in a forum in which they then become indistinguishable.

I read a lot: mostly, although not exclusively, I read philosophy, political theory, and theology, which means most of the time I’m reading a lot of men. That’s fine; I don’t have a problem with that. My background is in physics, also a male-dominated field, one in which I never experienced disrespect or disregard for being female. The most encouraging men in my life were my physics professors, my thesis advisor, and later my law-school advisor. The problem is not that the world of ideas is more populated by men (conservative women are not egalitarian for egalitarianism’s sake). The point rather is that, if there are in fact women who have the intellect, desire, and raw talent needed for the world of ideas, the men that are the standard-bearers of conservatism should take responsibility to cultivate and make space for these women: for the benefit of the movement, of its ideas, and of everyone. Many in the business world know that women often tend to be more hesitant and insecure about their work; that’s all the more reason to give them more encouragement and support.

The Humanizing Genius of Women

If conservatives want their ideas to reach the average man and woman, then there must be more women’s voices. Who volunteers in their children’s classrooms? Women. Who volunteers in the always-understaffed church committees? Women. Who rocks the cradle? Women. Who is involved in almost every aspect of life on the ground? Women. Women have an understanding of conservatism that goes deeper than policy ideas, because they uniquely understand human relationships. They bring what Pope St. John Paul II called the “genius of women.”

When women do not contribute, the result is a “spiritual impoverishment of humanity,” as the same pope says in his Letter to Women. Women’s contributions may at times take the form of disagreeing with men. The response should not be to patronize them. John Paul writes: “Women have contributed to that history [of humanity] as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions.” They did this, the pope goes on to say, “in spite of the fact that they were frequently at a disadvantage from the start, excluded from equal educational opportunities, underestimated, ignored, and not given credit for their intellectual contributions.” He adds, “women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future.” This is now, gentlemen!

Now more than ever conservatives need the contribution of the women in their midst. Why? Because we need “humanization” in our age. This is one reason why I approach the issues surrounding immigration from human, philosophical, and religious dimensions in this age that works “according to the criteria of efficiency and productivity.” And I think this is one reason why sometimes the contribution of women is devalued: because it doesn’t always quickly and easily translate into an observable outcome, or the clickstorm of a heated internet debate.

Catholic men, of all people, should be leading the way here and providing a model for other men. To them first the Magisterium sets the task to show respect for women before a world that devalues women in one form or another. Dear brothers, I encourage you to reread, or read for the first time, Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women. Remember, we are co-laborers with you; it is only through our complementarity and mutuality, the Church teaches, that we can serve humanity.

Democracy, Difference, and Disagreement

On the substance of the ideas in debate, I’ll say a few brief things.

First, a thorough, honest reading of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America must deal with some very sharp critiques he makes of democratic society—and of America in particular. One cannot read them and walk away thinking that liberalism on its own is enough.

There are two institutions that are crucial for the survival of a democracy: the family and religious institutions―Tocqueville mentions Christianity in particular. When these fail, the result is despotism, without question. Radical egalitarianism―what Tocqueville called “extreme equality”―enslaves as it carries out its insatiable desire to break down all hierarchy, differentiation, and exclusion.

Historically much harm has been done through these three elements, but they are absolutely necessary for well-functioning institutions; we ought to define and implement them better, not throw them out. Couple egalitarian despotism with America’s intrinsic anti-institutional bent and you will destroy the very structures American society needs to survive. The question is how to rebuild and sustain these structures for the good of all. The answer is both/and, from the top down and from the ground up. Everyone should do all they can do in the position from which they can do it. (These are the questions I explore in my book, coming out in 2020.)

Regarding Ahmari, well. . . . In my former time as a Calvinist, I encountered the well-known phenomenon called (in those circles) the “cage stage.” After one converts to Calvinism (whether from outside of Christianity or across denominations) one often becomes wildly zealous, always looking for an opportunity to argue people into one’s position. Such converts require “caging” to give them time to settle down. I think caging (or at least tempering) oneself for a while is, in general, good advice for anyone that undergoes any kind of conversion of ideas; because newfound excitement and fervor can blind one to the sincerity and sensitivity of others who also hold deep convictions. Ahmari has undergone rapid and numerous changes of beliefs and ideas within a short span of time; and when one has easy access to publishing venues, it is tempting to broadcast arguments that haven’t had time to steep a while in the mind and heart. In The Age of Anxiety, the poet W. H. Auden wrote:

Man has no mean; his mirrors distort;
His greenest arcadias have ghosts too;
His utopias tempt to eternal youth
Or self-slaughter.

Man tends to extremes. I know this from my personal life as well. One of the things that drew me to the Catholic faith is its long history of thinking through the things of God and man―its deep theological and philosophical tradition. Catholicism has good and beautiful things to offer to the world of man—but it only “proposes” them; it “imposes nothing,” as Pope John Paul II used to say. Catholic thinkers and writers have a special responsibility to bring out these good, beautiful things, and propose them to the world that God created and loves.

Luma Simms, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies the life and thought of immigrants. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including National Affairs, Law and Liberty, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Institute for Family Studies, and others.

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