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Kellyanne Conway’s uniquely feminist opposition to feminism

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway speaks about feminism, working in the the Trump administration and what the president is like in private (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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On Wednesday night, Kellyanne Conway explained her unusual week-long absence from the TV airwaves by citing her four children. And at the end of her discussion, which kicked off the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday morning, she implored women to demand equal pay.

In the middle of it all, though, Conway said she doesn't really identify as a feminist.

“It's difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion, in this context,” she said. “And I'm neither anti-male or pro-abortion.”

Conway then offered her own brand of feminism, which stands almost diametrically opposed to how liberals have come to define it: “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. That's really to me what conservative feminism, if you will, is all about.”

Given that feminism is generally more associated with the political left, powerful conservative women are often asked to account for whether they identify with it. And Conway's take on feminism is one that many conservative women share. A 2015 Washington Post/Kaiser poll showed 57 percent of conservative women said feminism unfairly blames men for women's problems, and 60 percent blamed the choices women make more than discrimination for keeping women from achieving full equality.

Conway certainly espouses elements of feminism — pointing to the unique demands of being a woman and a mother, how powerful women are judged differently than men, etc. — but is turned off by many off the things that also typically accompany it.

The most recent example of this conflict between conservatives and feminism was the Women's March on Washington. Organizers, while insisting that the march was nonpartisan and welcoming to women of all kinds, excluded the sponsorship of a women's group that opposed abortion rights — while maintaining sponsorships from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Emily's List, a pro-abortion rights organization that promotes women in politics.

As Perry Stein reported, conservative women faced a quandary when it came to whether to participate:

But conservative women who are politically against abortion — many of whom say they reluctantly voted for Trump on the basis of his vow to nominate an antiabortion Supreme Court justice — also plan to attend to ensure that during talks of feminism and womanhood in a Trump era, their voices of dissent are also heard. They may disagree with Democrats on abortion, but say they, too, have goals such as equal pay, more progressive child-care policies and generous maternity leave.

There is something of an inherent conflict between feminism as it has most often come to be understood and conservatism. Conservatism generally holds that people should have equal opportunity but aren't entitled to equal outcomes (such as equal pay) — that it's a matter of hard work. And Conway seems to subscribe to that, as her quote above shows.

But in almost the same breath, she'll also suggest that the deck is at least somewhat stacked against her.

During a Wednesday night appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, she explained her absence from cable news — CNN had reported that she was deliberately sidelined by the White House for poor message control — by saying that people don't understand the demands of being a working mother.

“I don’t think I have to explain myself if I’m not going on TV if I’m out with four kids for three days looking at houses and schools,” she said. “A lot of my colleagues aren’t trying to figure out how to be a mother of four kids, I assure you.”

At the tail end of her discussion on Thursday morning, Conway also recalled an oft-told story about being asked what her speaking fee was. Eventually, she landed on saying that she would ask for whatever the man she was speaking alongside was asking. “When in doubt, say, 'I'll have what he's having,'" she said.

And in perhaps her sharpest comments, Conway pointed to the women's march and said even women might have a problem with women like her. “It turns out that a lot of women just have a problem with women in power,” she said.

So Conway is both making the feminist case that women face inherent disadvantages in politics today — and that she herself personally does — but also that she doesn't see herself as “a victim of my circumstances.” It's a thoroughly unique brand of feminism.