To mark the International Day of the Woman on March 8 and Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles.
When Karin Agness Lips founded the Network of Enlightened Women, a conservative group focused on amplifying intellectually diverse opinions, at the University of Virginia in 2004, she did so as a way to protect free speech and encourage policy discussions on notoriously liberal college campuses.
Despite her aims, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle her group was quickly met with derision on campus.
“At our second meeting, a feminist magazine on campus came, and we were thrilled to have them there since we had a professor speaking. There were disagreements, but it was great,” Lips recalls about the meeting. Soon thereafter, the feminist magazine writer who’d attended “put a caricature of a conservative woman on their cover,” she says. “She had this colored shirt and apron, with a recipe book in one hand while stirring cookie batter in the other. To them, conservative women were just baby-making machines.”
Nearly a decade and a half later, Lips sees the contempt toward conservative women at a level that’s just as strong, thanks in part to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss, she says, as well as the fractionalized women’s movement.
“If you would gather a group of leaders in the women’s empowerment movement, their definitions would vary dramatically,” Lips says. “The problem with modern-day feminism is that it lacks a universally agreed-upon definition and that it’s been co-opted by political liberals and progressives as a vehicle to pass their political agenda.”
Lips, who is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, believes in what she calls “opportunity feminism, which seeks to maximize women’s opportunities to build fulfilling and meaningful lives they want to build.”
She also advocates for free markets, free speech, and strong national security. Lips’s brand of feminism “focuses on deregulating the economy and getting government out of business so people can negotiate their own work arrangements.” Hinting at entitlements, she thinks Americans need to “stop shifting the burden to the next generation,” and she believes inner-city education programs need serious reform. She admires how Carly Fiorina talks about feminism, she says, and how she handled herself in the face of sexist attacks during primary season.
As for Lips’s take on the women’s movement as prescribed by the leaders of the #MeToo campaign, she thinks we need more gentlemen to combat sexual harassment; Democrats and liberals need to stop infantilizing Republican and conservative women; and that the women’s workplace strike in 2017 was progressive, but not feminist.
How Lips feels about the current sociopolitical climate reflects how Americans disagree about what the women’s movement should fight for and, on a more fundamental level, whether the movement is necessary or beneficial in the first place.
According to a 2016 Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation survey, “six in 10 women and one-third of men call themselves a feminist or strong feminist, with roughly seven in 10 of each saying the movement is empowering. Yet more than four in 10 Americans see the movement as angry, and a similar portion say it unfairly blames men for women’s challenges.”
More recently, the Pew Research Center found that only about four in 10 U.S. women said they personally experienced gender discrimination or had been unfairly treated because of their gender, while nearly six in 10 women said the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men.
Those differences, of course, only skim the surface of the complex, deep disagreements over what being a feminist means today. And while some feminists might abide by fixed principles (e.g., you can’t be a feminist and be pro-life, you can’t be a minority and believe in a border wall) and maintain that the existential root of feminism means your political leanings are progressive, Lips says that kind of ideological rigidness leaves conservative women out of the larger “pro-women” movement and ultimately weakens women’s advancement.
“Too often, in my experience, and for a lot of women on campus, once you speak out as a conservative, you turn in your ‘woman card‘ and you don’t count anymore,” Lips says. “[Liberals] attack conservative women, often with a vitriol expressed more for conservative women than men.” Indeed, there are those left-of-center talking heads who guard their political beliefs as viciously as some on the right.
“At this point, I’ve seen the Women’s March co-opted by left to the point where I don’t pay as much attention to it as I should,” she says.
Still, Lips notes, she believes there are those with moderate or more centered views who might be open to hearing what she and the network of conservative women across America believe in. “It’s tough when you wanted someone to win,” referring to Clinton’s 2016 election loss, “but [liberals] co-opted the Women’s March label and turned it political when it didn’t have to be. There is room for unity, but we should have a new brand of feminism.”
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