Washington Post Writers
It is probably too soon to declare a feminist reformation, but a few signs here and there give one hope.
Hold it, sirs, don't stop reading yet. I realize that seeing the F-word in the first paragraph is like discovering that your bride is wearing pantyhose, but bear with me.
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Last week in the nation's capital, female leaders in government, business and media gathered for the second annual "Women Rule" summit, sponsored by Politico, the Tory Burch Foundation and Google. One panel (moderated by yours truly) was composed entirely of conservative women under the title "Conservative Feminists: Why It's Not an Oxymoron."
Only in Washington would anyone ask this question: Can a woman be both feminist and conservative? Why, yes, she can! But the question does deserve a more serious answer so that women can stop fussing over labels and litmus tests to determine whether a woman who doesn't fall in line with feminist ideology can be useful to society. Specifically, is a female politician worthy of women's support in public office even though she may be pro-life or might have spent her younger years at home raising her children?
This may seem an absurd question on its face — because it is. But in reality, conservative women face far greater obstacles to public service than their more-liberal counterparts primarily because of reproductive issues. EMILY's List, for example, anoints women candidates for public office (Translation: Are they pro-choice?) and has clout in the political realm. Conservative women needn't apply.
The three women panelists — Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Susan Brooks and Rep.-elect Barbara Comstock — spoke of their experiences dealing with media bias and facing down Democratic opponents who seemed only to want to talk about reproductive issues. These are important, obviously, but abortion doesn't define every woman's life, nor is it necessarily paramount to Republican women's interest in public service.
Why should smart conservative women essentially be blackballed by liberals based on whether they are liberal or conservative enough on this single issue? Please, this is a purely rhetorical question.
Bottom line: As a litmus test, whether one is pro-choice is ultimately counterproductive. With women at each other's throats, the patriarchy can pop another brew and hang on to the remote.
This fact was pointed out to me by the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Jean Toal, whom I had the honor of interviewing at a gathering of the state's women lawyers. Toal was the first female Supreme Court justice in the state and the first female chief justice. She is a lifelong Democrat and fits no Southern stereotype.
Tough, feisty, outspoken and usually the smartest person in the room, she is a tiny package of intellect and energy. She is also kind, motherly and firmly grounded in reality. The mother of two grown daughters, Toal, 71, has been an activist all her life, including as a civil rights worker registering African-American voters and later as a successful legislator. No shrinking violet, in other words.
When I called her for a pre-interview, Toal opened the conversation by saying, "I loved that column you wrote about that Com-something woman in Virginia. I stood up in my office and cheered!"
She was referring to a column about none other than Comstock, whose Democratic opponent suggested during the campaign that she had never held a real job. Comstock is a lawyer, small-business owner and mother who also has served in the Virginia Legislature.
But the larger point of the column, which dovetailed with Tuesday's panel discussion, was that only certain women are deemed acceptable for public office. Comstock would never make the cut because she is, alas, pro-life.
So is Toal.
"I was one of the few right-to-life Democrats that there ever has been, but nobody ever held it against me," Toal told me. "My colleagues and even my constituents respected me for those views and they didn't punish me for those views. Now being pro-choice is a litmus test for women and we've got to get over it. We need to not be ashamed that we are who we are. We are different. We need to honor difference of opinion. That's the only way we'll ever reach critical mass."
Yes, women are different — as different as men are from one another. And until women accept those differences, they will remain minority players in a world that pats them on the head and sponsors summits where women rule, if only for a day.