I’m thrilled that women’s rights are a front-and-center issue this campaign season, but it does come with an excrutiating price tag: Conservatives bloviating about how they looooooove “strong women”. This is a standard talking point that Republicans trot out when they’re called out for anti-feminism. At its core, it’s a nonsensical claim and works more as a distraction than a real argument. The image of the steel magnolia—a woman who dispatches her responsibilities with ease, who has a lot of energy and occasionally is sassy to her husband, because she’s far more competent than he—has a lot of emotional resonance, for conservatives, as well as feminists. Feminists admire the Joan Holloway type for her survival skills, because we know exactly how hard it is to survive in a system that is designed to make you fail no matter what you do. Conservatives love the “strong woman” image for an entirely different reason: Because the existence of these women means we don’t need feminism, in their minds. The underlying argument of, “I don’t hate women. I love strong women,” is that we need patriarchy as a sort of litmus test for which women are deserving and which are not. If you can live under a system where you’re a second class citizen, where you get paid less for equal work, where you don’t have reproductive rights, and where men have a lot of personal power over you—and you can still get out of bed every day, put on your lipstick, and get shit done? Well, you’ve done proved you’re a “strong woman”. Here’s a Mother’s Day card as a reward, and remember, you don’t need no stupid feminism. Just don’t ask any hard questions about why men aren’t tested this way.
Of course, there is a teeny bit of kinda feminism in the conservative wanking about “strong women”. The celebrants of “strong women” are willing to go way out on a limb and allow that their favored form of female not be burned at the stake for her scary mouthiness. Conservatives love to pat themselves on the back for believing that the 19th amendment shouldn’t be repealed or for allowing that some women may be allowed to draw a salary under some circumstances, and then get all faux-outraged when feminists say the vote is great, but it’s really not enough. (We gave you the vote! How dare you actually use it for something, you stupid bitches, er, strong women?) I have a couple of examples from the campaign trail that have amused me.
Example #1: Rick Santorum is trying to suggest he doesn’t hate women just because he believes their god-given role is to spend 30 years of their lives constantly pregnant. He’s deploying his wife to defend him against charges of misogyny, since that’s become women’s work in Republican circles.
Her argument is that Rick loves—you guessed it—strong women. Women with the strength to stand on two legs! Especially women who develop healthy pelvic muscles so that they don’t have to wear pee pads all the time even after baby 8 or 10. By god, he’s going to let her go back to work after all her kids are grown, which will be some time in her 70s, a well-known time in a woman’s life when employers are scrambling over themselves to hire her for that resume with a 40-year gap in it. Did she mention that he supports her right to vote, because she votes for him? Who the fuck needs feminism?
But Rick Santorum is hardly the only man crowing about how his love of “strong women” means he doesn’t have to answer for his votes against women’s rights. Scott Brown has taken a hit for misogynist behavior and policy, and so he pulled the “strong woman” card out to argue against needing that stupid feminism stuff.
Brown was introduced at the press conference by his wife, former Boston television reporter Gail Huff.
Huff wasn’t actively involved in the campaign that led to Brown’s 2010 special election win to the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, but said she’s able now to be more involved since she’s no longer a reporter in Boston.
Brown said he’s used to being surrounded by “strong willed women” and Huff said the family, including Brown and the couple’s two daughters Ayla and Arianna, have open discussions around the kitchen table.
“The girls, now that they are 23 and 21, have very, very specific ideas about what they do and don’t believe and they chime in with a lot of great ideas, and it’s wonderful for both of us to be able to bounce things off of them because their generation sees things very differently,” Huff said.
Brown declined to be more specific about the family discussions, but when a reporter asked Huff to name an issue that she and the couple’s daughter have educated Brown on, Brown chimed in and said “how to cook.”
“Yeah, how to cook, how to sew, how to clean,” Huff added.
So let’s see here. Brown deserves a cookie because he believes women are permitted to have political opinions, though he won’t go so far as to suggest that anyone do something foolish like listen to those opinions. Women having opinions on politics is a lot like letting a kid repeat the plot of the movie he just saw to you: You let them rattle on because it’s cute that they’re trying, but they’re not really ready to be Roger Ebert or anything.
But that doesn’t mean women don’t get to know stuff! I mean, they know how to cook and how to clean and even how to sew! They are so strong. Even in a world where the men around them think of them as slightly dim children who can’t be trusted with grown-up stuff like reproductive rights, they get up in the morning and get those stubborn eggs into that heavy frying pan. They are so strong! And feminism is trying to take that away, ladies. They want you to forsake the condescending head pats from men who think you’re stupid, and replace those head pats with equality and respect. Which sounds good on paper, but you know what happens then, right? No more head pats. Are you sure you can give that up?