On Wednesday 23rd February, Kelly-Anne Conway – right-hand woman to Donald Trump – proudly proclaimed to the Conservative Political Action Conference that she doesn’t identify as a feminist. Speaking over the cheering crowd, Conway stated the following:
“There’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. … I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances” (see here)
It is important to note Conway’s ironic obliviousness to the fact that her ‘choices’ would not be possible to vocalise had it not have been for feminist struggles; women suffered – and are still suffering – to have a voice. Likewise, Conway sweeps over the fact that her status as a wealthy white woman has been an open door to choices, compared with the locked gate that many women find themselves facing. Indeed, Conway’s comment provides us with an insight as to why 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump; here is a man who can ‘empower’ me, whose daughter wants to give women – like me –a seat at the table. Damn be the consequences for disabled women, women of colour and LGBT women – I’m empowering myself!
The rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ has been central to liberal feminism for many years. Certainly, Conway’s words are reminiscent of the post-feminist movement of the 1990’s. Often referred to as ‘do-me’ or ‘have-it-all’ feminism, post-feminism encouraged women to embrace products and ideals that were ‘off bounds’ by previous feminist movements such as high heels, make-up and pink. This celebration of traditional notions of femininity was relayed throughout pop culture as a means of ‘empowering women.’ Most notably, the Spice Girls famously stated that they could “give feminism a kick up the arse” by replacing it with Girl Power; a bubble-gum-pink discourse encapsulated by the wearing of crop-tops, regular high-kicks in the air and vague discussions of “female friendship.” Likewise, shows such as Sex and The City – despite including some progressive scenes regarding sexuality in older women – promoted “empowerment” via constant consumption. For example, Carrie’s source of “power” was often boiled down to her great taste in expensive shoes and her access to purchase as many of them as she liked (see here).
Instead of carving out space for a diverse chorus of women’s voices, discourses of empowerment offer no real threat to over-arching gender norms. This ‘brand’ of feminism does not represent any discomfort in how we understand gender and this is precisely why feminists must reject it.
It is an overly simplistic conception of power to suggest that following a path of fierce neoliberal consumption will lead to ‘liberation.’ Equally, viewing an engagement with ‘feminine’ products and practices as an act of “oppression” upon the female body demonstrates an overly simplistic conception of power. Power does not operate as an ‘oppressive’ or ‘emancipating’ force, power works through us in every day acts; women – like myself – can be complicit in performing our gender whilst still being critically aware. Practices that we take part in are simultaneous acts of “self-discipline” and “freedom.” Arguably, we need to move away from binary concepts of “oppression VS empowerment” in order to offer tangible methods of resistance.
Another example is that of the Women’s Equality Party, whose main policies seemingly revolve around “equality between the sexes” via the methods of equal pay and representation. Already, this rhetoric should ring alarm bells for offering a binary conception of gender. In their discussions on equal pay, for example, there is no acknowledgement that women of colour face a larger pay gap than white women.
Likewise, WEP’s policies on sex work give the air of a “ladies country club” rather than a political party; citing the “ending violence against women” as one of their objectives whilst advocating for the continued criminalisation of sex work. Such a policy ignores the vast evidence that the decriminalisation of sex work protects women from “harm, exploitation and coercion” whilst demonstrating the WEP’s lack of consideration for *all* women. Seemingly, such a stance on sex work does not represent a desire to protect women from violence, but a moralistic crusade to “save” women; rhetoric mirrored by the religious right as a means of control over women’s bodies (see here).
During their party conference, the WEP held a panel discussion on feminism featuring the former minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan MP. Alongside the irony that Morgan proposed the removal of feminism from the A-level syllabus, she was integral to a government that introduced severe policies of austerity. It is widely accepted that such budget cuts have affected society’s most vulnerable, as well as disproportionately effecting women. Thus, Morgan’s “feminism” can be linked to that of Conway’s and Ivanka Trump; all encompass the misguided conflation between “woman” and “feminism”, terms that don’t have to go hand in hand.
Thus, recognising power as a ‘push’ and a ‘pull’ force means rejecting the notion that simply ‘adding women and stirring’ will be a successful method for progress. Look at Conway, look at Ivanka. These women are seemingly happy to climb to power via their brand of ‘women empowerment’ so long as they can pull the ladder up after them and leave women of colour, LGBT, disabled and working-class women to struggle below. To quote Russel Brand’s simple and yet poignant analysis of Thatcher: “she may have shattered the glass ceiling, but she left glass in the eyes of the women beneath her.”
Overall, Conway’s words demonstrate the necessity for feminism to distance itself from the Frankenstein-esque relationship between rampant individualism and discourses of ‘empowerment.’ We need to ignore any party or movement that speaks for some women rather than all women, else how can we present a unified front? Our fight against fascism—and the future of feminism—depends on it.