The XX Factor

A Young Conservative’s Feminist Conundrum

During Michelle Easton’s half-hour speech at the National Conservative Student Conference , the audience responded in unison at all the right moments-cheering when Sarah Palin was referred to as a “gun-toting, moose-hunting former beauty queen,” booing when a photo of Gloria Steinem appeared on screen.

Easton sped through a recitation of things that are bad for women ( women’s studies classes , the Vagina Monologues , Take Your Daughter to Work Day ) and people who aren’t ( Palin again). But cracks in the anti-feminist façade appeared as soon as the Q&A started. The first questioner was a young woman who identified herself as a physics major from a small school in Wisconsin. She was conservative, she said, but she thought there were some good things to be learned in women’s studies classes. She wanted to know, “how women can proclaim their feminist ideas when they’re in a Republican environment, without being considered a loony.”

Easton was temporarily flummoxed. “Well,” she said. “I just told you why that’s not a word that I choose to use…” and then rehashed her reasons for hating the word “feminism,” what with its association with bra-burners and man-haters. But she didn’t engage the heart of the question, which wasn’t about vocabulary. It was about why so many conservatives refuse to entertain even the possibility that feminists might be right about some things.

I caught up with Easton’s questioner after the session was over. Her name is Charlotte Evans; she is on her way to becoming the first woman to graduate from Ripon College’s physics program, and she’s all set to join ROTC. This girl is going to be an engineer for the Army-she should have some serious conservative street cred, right?

Wrong. Even though Evans agrees with Easton on most political issues, she’s in the uncomfortable position of knowing that Easton probably doesn’t have much use for her interest in Betty Friedan.

Evans’ desires aren’t complicated, but they’re conflicting: she wants a good job that she got because she earned it, not because she has two X chromosomes. (Classic conservative, this one!) She wants to be able to get that job in a traditionally male field. (What a feminist!) Because she wants both, she finds herself trapped in conference rooms where she listens to people boo the women she has learned to respect, if not always agree with. That leaves her with another desire: “I want to be able to identify myself as a feminist without being looked down upon.”

Photograph of a woman at the Republican National Convention by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.