The presence of conservative women in a number of prominent political positions has reignited an old debate about the relationship between conservatism and feminism. Last summer, when both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann seemed like influential voices within the Republican party, Naomi Wolf insisted “these women are real feminists – even if they don’t share policy preferences with the ‘sisterhood’”. In last year’s British general election, the Conservative party doubled its number of female MPs, with many of the new intake promising to offer a ‘Tory feminist’ voice.
Now the mere existence of conservative women in itself means nothing. Being a woman and a politician does not automatically make you a feminist. It is well established that historically women have tended to be more socially conservative. But this endorsement is insufficient to demonstrate conservatism’s feminist credentials. Just as an autocratic party can win votes from a majority of the electorate without becoming democratic, so women can use the rights won for them by feminists to move society in an anti-feminist direction.
Indeed the lesson that high-profile female politicians need not be feminists ought to have been learned from the most high profile of them all: Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib”. An interesting contrast, though, is that many modern conservative women are happy to self-identify as feminists. Earlier this year the Observer profiled a group of MPs willing to be labelled ‘Tory feminists’. Sarah Palin has used the symbol of ‘mama grizzlies’ (who apparently juggle careers and child rearing) to represent her “emerging, conservative, feminist identity”.
The idea of ‘conservative feminism’ is usually invoked with a sense of subversive irony. These are two terms, it is universally acknowledged, that do not normally go together. On some views this is just a matter of historical accident. It just happens to be the case that those who have been feminists have tended to be on the left. For others, the idea is oxymoronic: any attempt to marry the two inevitably ends up watering down feminism or conservatism.
This essay is not an exercise in reconstructing the ideas of these modern conservative feminists. The question of whether any politician has succeeded in reconciling the two theories is set aside. Rather, the intention is to examine the ideological compatibility of the two. Is it, in principle, possible to combine conservatism and feminism and maintain a coherent philosophy?
A couple of caveats. The term ‘conservative’, as used here, refers to the philosophical and ideological tradition. It does not necessarily refer to any party. Parties are not wedded to any normative commitments, and so there is no necessary restriction on what a member of a given party can believe. Nor should conservatism be confused with libertarianism, though the two are increasingly inseparable. Libertarianism is a distinct political theory that has come to hijack conservatism in recent decades. To see the difference, consider that consistent libertarianism often calls for radical measures, like the dismantling of the welfare state, or the legalisation of drugs. Such ideas are anathema to conservatism, which, if it believes anything, believes in avoiding dramatic departures from the status quo. The extent to which libertarianism is consistent with feminism is a fascinating but distinct question, basically hinging on the extent to which feminism requires state intervention.
The difficulty with conservatism is that it is easier to say what it is not than to provide a positive characterisation. Numerous attempts have been made to set out the core beliefs of conservatives – faith in custom, the idea of human imperfection, an organic conception of society, a devotion to property as protecting freedom – but no single list is fully convincing. As much as anything, this is because of the anti-intellectualism of conservatism, eschewing abstract theories and generalisations. Fixed principles are much too rationalistic a way of doing politics: conservatives would rather rely on custom and intuition.
One of the few features of conservatism, though, that most can agree on is the resistance of excessive and unnecessary change, and defence of the status quo. Conservatism, after all, must involve conserving something. This raises the thorny question of when conservatives can favour change. Oakeshott offers perhaps the most plausible account of conservatism, when he describes it as a set of strategies for managing change: place the burden of proof on the innovator; make change as organic (as opposed to being imposed) as possible; innovation should address defects, and not seek to correct the satisfactory; change should be slow, not rapid; and that the timing of new projects is crucial.
Even this minimal sketch of conservatism seems to conflict with conventional understandings of feminism. Feminism is usually thought to be about change, about addressing injustices and unfair social structures, even if this involves major disruption. Feminism has generally been a philosophy of critique, exposing the myriad ways in which women are oppressed and subordinated. Conservatism’s place has always been to resist critique to defend the existing order, and to explain the dangers of radical change.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of different ways in which feminism and conservatism might come together, at least on one understanding of feminism. Let us tentatively define feminism as the promotion or defence of equality between women and men. While this definition is likely to be controversial, it should be broad enough to cover most understandings of what feminism is about.
Firstly, some people might think that while feminists of the past were right to be critical of their societies, all the fights that need to be won have been won. On this view, gender inequality is a thing of the past, and feminists ought to devote their energies to ensuring that we do not slide back towards it. Conservative feminists of this ilk would observe that women have reason to protect the status quo, and conservatism is the ideology with the best tools to defend it. This argument mirrors Samuel Huntington’s suggestion that modern liberals should strategically embrace conservatism: “Today, however, the greatest need is not so much the creation of more liberal institutions as the defense of those which already exist. This defense requires American liberals to lay aside their liberal ideology and accept the values of conservatism for the duration of the threat”.
Alternatively, the alliance between feminism and conservatism could be based on shared substantive beliefs, and not just tactical convenience. Conservatism generally involves defence of and deference to customs and traditions. Feminists have usually treated existing practices as oppressive and unfair to women. Things like the gendered division of labour, or norms of behaviour and appearance are seen as constraining and biased in favour of men.
However, conservative feminists may see the destruction of these traditions and expectations as damaging for women and gender equality. They might believe that men and women’s roles in society ought to be separate but equal, and that blurring the boundaries is bound to cause only confusion and disappointment. Worse, they might think that undermining traditional gender roles necessary involves deprecating the ‘woman’s sphere’. Thus, on this view, the demand to be more than a housewife and mother implicitly suggests that there is something wrong with being a housewife and mother. This may be based on a caricature of the orthodox feminist position, but it is still a coherent set of ideas: women are more likely to find fulfilment and equality in conventional gender roles, and so they ought to protect and defend these conventions.
In what sense are these two positions feminist? Recall the two elements of the definition offered above: feminism involves promoting and defending gender equality. Tactically conservative feminism believes that there is nothing left to promote. Rather, it sees the greatest threat to gender equality in regression to the past, and so seeks to defend the status quo. Traditionalist conservative feminism interprets the promotion of gender equality as involving adherence to custom, and so aims to protect and enforce these customs.
None of this is intended as an endorsement of conservative feminism. There are major problems with the both the idea that there is no more progress to be made on gender equality, or that women’s conventional roles are their most fulfilling. All this essay has attempted to do is to show that conservative feminism is a coherent position, though it might require some ideological gymnastics. This is an advance on most discussions of the topic, which treat it as self-evident either that feminism is equally germane to left and right, or that conservative feminism is an impossibility. The fact that these assumptions are flatly inconsistent with one another shows that they clearly are not self-evident; in fact, neither is fully correct.
Whether conservative feminism deserves recognition as a class of feminism depends on whether we accept the formulation or interpretation of feminism offered above. Discussing Sarah Palin’s appropriation of the ‘feminist’ label, Nina Power sees “a fundamental crisis in the meaning of the word”. If it can be used so broadly and in such contradictory ways, she argues, it is practically vacuous. To make progress, “we may simply need to abandon the term, or at the very least, restrict its usage to those situations in which we make quite certain we explain what we mean by it”.
This essay has tried to clarify the dispute, and so illuminate the battleground on which feminists can reclaim their ideology from conservatives. They can deny that a concern for gender equality is sufficient to mark out a theory as feminist. They can emphasise the folly of complacency, and demonstrate that progress on gender equality is as important as defending achieved gains. They can highlight the poverty of a ‘separate but equal’ approach to gender roles. A more forceful argument on these points, and people will feel compelled to choose between feminism and conservatism.
 Duverger, The Political Role of Women (Paris: UNESCO, 1955); de Vaus and McAllister, ‘The changing politics of women: gender and political alignments in 11 nations’, European Journal of Political Research 17 (1989).
 See, for example, Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), for a bitter attack on Thatcherism and its perversion of conservative principles.
 See Kirk, The Conservative Mind (London: Faber & Faber, 1954); Quinton, ‘Conservatism’, in Goodin and Pettit (eds.), A Companion to Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) and Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) for three different lists of conservative attributes.
 Oakeshott, ‘On being Conservative’, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962), 172.
 Huntington, ‘Conservatism as an Ideology’, American Political Science Review 51 (1957), 472-3.
 Power, One Dimensional Woman (Ropley: O Books, 2009), 8.
This article was published in The Oxford Left Review Issue 6