January 19 2017
featuring Carrie L. Lukas
For Mindy Finn, Saturdays are cherished times to be with her family. The Republican political operative and founder of Empowered Women, a not-for-profit group focused on inspiring women in civic life, relishes the slower pace after a long workweek. This Saturday will be just like any other: she’ll eat breakfast with her husband and two young boys, maybe take her kids to the park, and definitely sneak in some shuteye during their naptime.
Carrie Lukas also plans to spend Saturday with her family. Lukas, the managing director of the conservative policy group the Independent Women’s Forum, will take her daughter to a writing contest, and then take the rest of her kids – five in all – to visit their grandparents.
And Sarah Isgur Flores, who served as deputy campaign manager to the Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, will spend the day clad in cozy pajamas, snuggling up with her cat and catching up on Sherlock episodes.
One thing they all know for sure? Though they all live in or near Washington, they won’t join the thousands of women descending on the capital for the Women’s March on Washington.
The march’s organizers are planning for some 200,000 people: women of all races, creeds and sexual orientations, their partners, their kids.
But conservative women – though divided during the campaign on their support for Donald Trump – won’t march. They’ll be on the sidelines, praying that their unexpected standard bearer will actually deliver on their long policy wishlist.
The march isn’t called the Leftwing Women’s March on Washington, or the Democratic Women’s March. It’s billed as simply the Women’s March on Washington. But despite its intersectional, all-inclusive mission, prominent conservative women say the event doesn’t represent all women – particularly, well, themselves.
“It’s going to be a whole bunch of people standing up and saying, ‘You’re not a real woman if you don’t agree with us,’” says Flores, who works as the spokeswoman for Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general. “But the great part about being a conservative woman is that we know who we are, we know what our beliefs are, and we know how many women agree with us.”
Throughout the campaign, Trump has flouted long-held GOP positions on healthcare, taxation and more. In response, those who disagree with Trump have had to differentiate themselves as conservatives rather than Republicans. “We’re not a Republican organization,” Lukas tells me of IWF. “We’re a conservative organization that stands for certain principles. Not for people, nor for a party.”
As Trump continues to change his mind on core policy views, conservative women are sticking to their own beliefs more than ever. Those beliefs are at odds with the unmistakably liberal platform of the Women’s March, which advocates for gender equality, reproductive freedom, paid family leave, an end to police brutality, among other stances.
Conservative women, meanwhile, have more modest aims: they’re hoping for another rightwing justice to fill Antonin Scalia’s long-vacant supreme court seat, one who is unabashedly opposed to abortion rights. They wholly embrace the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature healthcare law. And their policy goals aren’t confined to stereotypical “women’s issues”.
“I find it condescending, insulting and a little demeaning,” Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old firebrand host of Tomi on The Blaze TV, says of that buzzy term. “To think that women only care about abortion, and birth control, and paid maternity leave, I think, does a disservice to a lot of conservative women that care about immigration and national security, and Common Core, and the other things that are facing our nation and facing our families.”
Trump’s spotty record as a conservative, along with his seeming disregard for democratic norms, hasn’t assured conservative women that he’ll be their champion – far from it. And his open boasts of sexual assault don’t make him an easy person to unite behind. But, after eight years of a president who challenged their core beliefs, Trump at least claims the Republican party mantle. And in Washington, institutional power is the key to passing any serious policy agenda.
“I’m sure that there may be women who are just secretly and behind closed doors shaking their heads, and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this guy actually just said that, please don’t hold any more press conferences,’” says Ronnee Schreiber, a professor at San Diego State University and author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics, referring to Trump’s bizarre tangle with the media last week.
But national conservative organizations, she predicts, will look past that. “What they’re going to do is say, ‘Hey, let’s celebrate the fact that,’ for example, ‘we’re a pro-life organization and we have a president who claims to be pro-life. Now, we have a chance to actually get an appointment to the supreme court who’s pro-life.’”
Trump’s position on abortion rights, like most of his beliefs, is far from set in stone. But until he proves his mettle in office or fails spectacularly, the conservative women I spoke with told me that even if they didn’t support him during the campaign, they were hoping for the best.
“I think it’s horrible when the president-elect says something that’s offensive about women,” says Lukas, who, though she would have preferred many of the other 16 GOP candidates who initially entered the primaries, ended up voting for Trump. “But then I look at things like the possibility for healthcare reform, and I’m super excited about that. For tax reform. Tax reform and the problems with starting businesses and job creation, that’s a huge women’s issue. And I feel very optimistic about that.
“Mr Trump is not a conservative,” she continues. “He doesn’t come from the conservative movement, the policy movement that I’ve always been a part of. But I’ve got hope.”
Just after the election, in the “Final Thoughts” segment of her eponymous TV show, Tomi Lahren went on a tear against anti-Trump protesters. Or, as she called them, “a bunch of sore losers” throwing a “tantrum”.
“President-elect Donald Trump has opened his arms to all Americans,” Lahren chided. “No one is asking you to bow at his feet. But your protests and tantrums aren’t doing anything for this country. You have every right to do it. But you’re just kind of making fools of yourselves at this point.”
This Saturday, Lahren will be in Washington – she will travel from Dallas to attend the inauguration of Trump, whose campaign she advised on social media starting late last summer.
“I don’t wake up every day and remind myself that I’m a woman. I know that I’m a woman,” she says, charging that there’s been a concerted effort by Democrats “to silence and quiet conservative women, or to diminish conservative women, or to repeal the woman card of conservative women”.
For a moment last week, it seemed that the Women’s March organizers had reached across the yawning political chasm to include a major plank of conservatism. On Friday, the March announced that one of its hundreds of organizational partners would be the New Wave Feminists, an anti-abortion group based in Texas. “Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement,” one of the event’s co-chairs told the Atlantic. “We must not just talk about feminism as one issue, like access to reproductive care.”
Backlash was swift. The feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted her indignation: “Intersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda. That’s not how it works! The right to choose is a fundamental part of feminism.” By Monday, the organizers had backtracked, releasing a statement clarifying that the March’s platform “is pro-choice, and that has been our stance from day one”.
When I talked to Lukas before the flap, she said the exclusion of conservative women was par for the course for progressives. “I’m looking at their little website now,” she said, reading the march’s stated mission: “‘Recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.’ Well, maybe.” She laughed hollowly. “Maybe they think that. But they sure don’t think that diversity of thought is of any interest. They sure aren’t interested in people who don’t support their political agenda.”
Flores agrees. “This leftwing playbook is down to one page,” she says, getting into “feminazi” character: “‘If you don’t vote our way, we will call you a racist, we will call you a misogynist, we will call you anti-woman. And if you are a woman, then we’re going to call you a traitor, and we’re going to say you’re not a real woman. You’re not the right type of woman.’” Those charges, she adds, can be frustrating. But she takes heart that this cycle – despite the overwhelming pressure to support Hillary Clinton on the basis of shared gender – it didn’t succeed.
“That weaponized feminism,” she says, “is losing its force.”
‘It’s time for all women to identify what is truly important’
The first time Mindy Finn ran for office, it made national news. In October, she jumped into the race for vice-president on a long-shot independent ticket with the former CIA counterterrorism officer Evan McMullin, hoping to serve as a conservative foil to Trump’s distinct brand of erratic Republican ideals. The pair didn’t get far, failing to even make the ballot in many states.
But Finn, a veteran GOP operative who has worked for George W Bush and Mitt Romney, isn’t backing down from defending her conservative, #NeverTrump values. Along with her former running mate, Finn plans to launch an advocacy effort that will catalyze a “new conservative movement” to defend the constitution against Trump.
“It’s time for all women – and I can say this as a conservative – to identify what is truly important, and to guard those principles and those values, and advocate for them regardless of who is president, or what party is in power,” she says. “It’s a country over party moment.”
Finn hopes Trump puts “the public’s interest ahead of his own”. But after a long campaign of quite the opposite, she says she’s “skeptical” of his capacity to respect democratic norms. Under Trump, conservative women may be pleased with cabinet appointments, supreme court justices, executive actions. But there’s also an underlying fear that “America as we know it will cease to exist”.
“President Bush, you could disagree with him on a series of things,” she says. “But I think people would say he respects human rights and has a strong moral compass. And that’s not something that I am confident that we can say about Donald Trump.”
Ultimately, Trump’s ever-shifting policy whims don’t dictate what conservative women believe. And despite the identity crises, Lahren says now is a pivotal time for right-of-center women.
“Now, our first female president can be someone that’s not scandal-ridden. Can be someone that didn’t have a rap sheet a mile long. Can be someone that was not investigated by the FBI,” she says. “So I think it’s actually an exciting moment for women.”