NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—Everyone was confused at “How to Win Women,” a CPAC panel originally scheduled for the afternoon of February 22. It was unclear whether or not the panel, hosted by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), was going to happen, or whether or not it had been silently abandoned. The volunteers staffing CPAC were desperately looking for the speaker and, after about half hour, the audience gave up and the room emptied.
The panel eventually reappeared on Friday’s agenda, a day later. Its hosts apologized for the confusion, saying that CPAC’s organizers had listed the wrong time and date for the panel. It was an inauspicious start for the paltry few panels dedicated to women at CPAC (three by my count and that includes one on abortion).
Hosted by the IWF’s Patrice Lee Onwuka and Ashley Carter, the session was a fast-paced, PowerPoint slide-filled, sprint through what women really care about. Women care about many things Cartner and Onwuk assured, but women, they argued, are deeply uninterested in what they called “women’s issues,” a kind of shorthand for reproductive rights, gender equality, and equal pay. “‘Women’s issues’ are a marketing ploy of the left,” one of the PowerPoint slides informed the audience. Women’s actual top priorities are the economy, followed by national security and healthcare. These, according to the IWF, are distinct from women’s issues.
But if women issues seem pressing in the political conversation, then IWF was there to reassure the audience that women are strong and have little need for government intervention or entitlement programs. “Women don’t need saviors,” Onwuka said.
They also, according to Onwuka and Carter, don’t need paid family leave. Opening the issue of paid family leave to the audience, Onwuka asked what kind of conservative “pushback” could be gently offered to a fictional woman who supported paid family leave. Two men eagerly chimed in, one suggested that a government entitlement of paid family leave would prevent businesses from hiring women, never mind that paid family leave would apply to men as well. Another said that employers would no longer hire full-time employees in order to skirt the issue. A young man in the front row suggested that paid family leave is insulting because it presumes that “women can’t take care of their families without help.” Women in the audience suggested that it would effect 401(k)s or set back equal pay (moments previously, however, Onwuka said that the pay gap is a fiction).
Onwuka nodded in agreement and reiterated their points before stating that paid family leave would lead to a “backlash on women in the workforce.” There was no mention of men, but a general agreement that these problems could simply be solved if the government left business alone to figure out paid family leave for itself. The IWF suggested that families simply save in order to take time off after the birth of a child.
IWF’s vision of women was diverse enough but still homogenous: Women in their universe are married and wealthy enough to have investments both for themselves and their children. Women don’t need paid family leave, they need savings accounts (IWF did seem supportive of Marco Rubio’s recent family leave plan). But more than anything, women don’t need the government, feminism, or the big government of the left.
At “How to Win Women,” women were already empowered. That sense of empowerment and strength, Onwuka suggested, was being frayed by liberal values. The stand-in for those values appeared to be the women’s website Bustle. “Young women reading Bustle are hearing that they are victims and men are out to get them,” she said. “We need to push back.” That meant pushing back on the idea of rape culture, too. “A lot made about the rape culture,” Onwuka said. She added that we needed to “prepare kids for the real world...they need to know how to interact with other people and set boundaries.” She suggested that we start telling young women that “your decisions are going to have actions,” something women should think about before they drink or go out.
But this was meant to be an empowering message of individuality and personal responsibility. The left wanted to victimize women, the government did too, but men certainly did not. “Men are allies not adversaries in the fight for greater advancement,” a slide read.
The word “victim” was a staple during practically every—however brief they may have been—discussion of gender. At CPAC, women were eager to tell me that they were strong and independent. At the Clare Booth Luce Policy Insitute’s (CBLPI) booth downstairs, the group had an Instagram-ready chalkboard that encouraged women to complete the sentence “I don’t need feminism...” When I stopped by the booth on Thursday, someone had written: “because I’m not a victim.” That same assertion appeared in a booklet titled “If There’s a War on Women, Women are Winning,” published by Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute.
“Women of America,” it begins in dark red fussy script “You’ve been told you are a pathetic victim of a vicious patriarchal system that holds you down. Of an unfair business world that imposes an invisible, impenetrable “glass ceiling” on your career advancement. Of a ‘gender wage gap’ in which employers pay you only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.” “If all of this were actually true, ladies, why would bother to get out of bed each day?” it asks in bold. “None of it is true [...] Let’s set the record straight...and scoff at those who call you victims of men.” There’s more: “Now it’s time to point your high heels at the one culprit that really does treat you shabbily: government.”
The government was undoubtedly the enemy, but so are the lies that pit men against women and women against women, making women victims, yet again. Like the IWF, the CBLPI rejected the pay gap and naturalized pay disparities. “Women,” the booklet asserted, “tend to prefer jobs with more flexible work schedules, while men choose ones with inflexible schedules.” Women also earn college degrees in less profitable fields. The pay gap, CBLPI wrote, “Is not a result of male discrimination.”
The booklet sat between “Celebrating Conservative Women,” a calendar that features Kellyanne Conway and Christina Hoff Sommers, as a well as a booklet titled “Sharia Law: Legalized Misogyny,” and “Sense and Sexuality: The college’s girl’s guide to real protection in a hooked-up world” (a booklet filled with such easily ridiculed advice, that it makes the internet rounds every few years). Taken as a whole, the booklets represented what was important to the women represented by the CBLPI. The group’s board includes Michelle Duggar, S.E. Cupp, and Michelle Malkin, just to name a few.
If the conservative women of the IWF and the CBLPI are strong, independent and not in need of the government, then the women on Wednesday’s “Are Conservatives Serious About Defunding Planned Parenthood?” panel were in dire need of government intervention. Exactly why the Trump administration and Republican Congress hadn’t yet defunded Planned Parenthood was the question posed to Day Gardner, President of the National Black Pro-Life Union and National Pro-Life Center; Catherine Glenn Foster, CEO of Americans United for Life; Kelly Marcum, from the Family Research Council, and Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, sought to answer.
The answer was straightforward enough: Republicans don’t have the 60 votes in the Senate required to stop Medicaid reimbursements from being distributed to Planned Parenthood. The women were torn over whether or not the Senate should just change its rules to allow the fifty vote threshold. But if they were tentative about pressing the Senate, they were eager to praise the Trump administration.
“I’m gratified with [Neil] Gorsuch’s nomination,” Catherine Glenn Foster said as the panel nodded in agreement. “I believe Roe will be overturned,” she added to nods and applause. In the meantime, Foster and Americans United for Life (AUL) are working on state-based bills that would shift funding away from Planned Parenthood toward “a tiered system that provides comprehensive women’s health care.” She added that she had met with legislators interested in an AUL bill that would provide federal funding to “crisis clinics,” facilities for pregnant women claiming to offer resources, but generally exist mostly to convince them not to get an abortion.
Meanwhile, Penny Nance from Concerned Women for America emphasized the natural role of women as caregivers. “Our humanity depends on us recognizing human life,” Nance said. “Women have been given the gift of giving life,” she added, suggesting that this unique position as caretakers made women a greater stakeholder on the issue of abortion. Women, Nance said, are against war and, by nature, are givers. The “abortion industrial complex” not only ended the lives of innocent babies, it usurped the feminine role of caregiving.
The women on the defunding Planned Parenthood panel sought more government intervention and their CPAC sisters rejected entitlement programs (to be clear, all of these groups are anti-abortion), but they were equally focused on empowerment. Ownership of one’s role as nurturer and caretaker was a place of empowerment, as was collaboration with men. One audience member asked what the role of men in the abortion debate is and the panelist agreed that it was a necessity. Perhaps the only controversial statement was when Nance said that women have a special place in the abortion argument because they are nurturers. It was clear some of the audience and panelists disagreed. Nance shifted gears, saying that men were welcome in the debate, “we’re the group that likes men,” she added.
Switch out “government” for Planned Parenthood and the themes at the abortion panel remain the same. Planned Parenthood only offered women lies and false hope, stealing away their unique individuality and transforming them into weak victims.
At the close of the panel, one young woman asked how to respond to other women who accused anti-abortion women of selling out or betraying their gender. The women sighed and scoffed, each noting their deep offense at such implications. After all, they weren’t victims, but it was clear throughout CPAC that they surely felt victimized.