Strait-laced sisters

Liberal journalist Elinor Burkett met the enemy -- conservative women -- and found that they were, well, a lot like her.

By Lori Leibovich
Published April 1, 1998 5:30PM (EST)

Two years ago, journalist Elinor Burkett took to the road to face her
biggest fear: conservatives. Specifically, conservative women like
Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, who swept into Congress in 1994 as part of the
"Republican Revolution." At 51, the strident feminist had never
even had a conversation with a conservative before. What she found during
her travels were passionate, committed and outspoken women of all ages who
cared deeply about issues -- women who were on the far side of
the ideological spectrum from Burkett but shared her devotion to political causes.

Burkett interviewed Muslim women, young women at Christian rock
festivals and black conservatives. She interviewed female blackjack dealers
at a casino on an Indian reservation, militia women and women getting their hair done at a Montana salon called Curl Up And Dye. "Everywhere I went, for those two years -- if I was in a diner or in Bloomingdale's, wherever I was -- I stopped to talk to people," Burkett says. "Anytime somebody said, 'Yes, I am a conservative,' I said, 'Talk to me.'" The result, "Right Women: A
Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America" (Scribner), is an
almost anthropological investigation of the world of right-wing women.

Salon recently spoke to Burkett about feminism, affirmative action and confronting her own prejudices.

Of all the women you talked to, who were the most fascinating?

The younger conservative women. I was totally taken by them because they reminded me so much of myself at their age, and yet they were on the opposite end of the political spectrum. As much as I don't like their politics, they are so earnest, so sincere and so convinced that they are revolutionarily correct, which is exactly what I thought at the same age.

I think I was also fascinated by them because they wear the breakthroughs of feminism so comfortably. They take for granted that everyone will take them seriously, that they have the right to and will get as good a job as any man they know. That if some man starts to sexually harass them, all they have to do is slap him around and he will stop. That they can be powerful actresses in the world. I found that breathtaking. There they were with everything that I hoped that we would bequeath to the next generation.

But they were spitting on everything that I thought they should believe in. That contradiction was so vivid, yet they would come back to me and say, "Even if you don't agree with us, don't you like it that we're tough?" And I did.

You write that you wish the young conservative women could at least be grateful for what you and your feminist counterparts did to create opportunities for them.

I kept saying, "Why can't you be grateful?" Then I realized, well, that's disgusting. Did I do this for gratitude? I learned the most about myself from these younger women.

Why don't you think that they feel gratitude? And why did you want them to?

I am not sure anybody feels gratitude. I don't sit around and feel grateful to Susan B. Anthony when I get in front of the voting machine. Or to the guy who invented Tampax. I think the interesting question is why I wanted gratitude. I think that for every generation of people who has done anything they think of as great or important -- whether it is fighting in World War II, or the civil rights movement or the women's movement -- your identity is so formed by that, it is your blow for history. It is your stake in feeling that when you die, you can look back and say you did something good. If people aren't grateful, then it makes you feel diminished. Yet, of course, if they felt grateful, probably I would be diminished, because they would then be prisoners of my past rather than of their future. If young women are thinking, "Oh, this is so great that I am allowed to do this stuff," then they are not moving forward with their futures.

You state clearly at the beginning of your book that you held deep prejudices and stereotypes about conservative women. In fact, you say that until you began reporting this book at the age 50, you had never talked to a conservative. How did you get over yourself?

Two things happened for me. The decision to do the book in the first place was an admission that I suspected that my stereotypes were wrong. I wrote in the introduction that after the '94 election, when those seven ultra-conservative women were elected to Congress and nobody took them seriously, including me, I suddenly suspected that maybe I was missing something important. The second thing is, they got me over me. That was the advantage of going in as a self-identified liberal. Because I wasn't being that blank-slate journalist, I was being a full human being. I was inviting comments. So they would say, "So what do you think of this?" and I would tell them, and they would come back at me. It was a very different kind of reporting than I had ever done.

What were your stereotypes about conservatives prior to this book?

My vision of conservative women was that they were one-dimensional, like paper-doll cut-outs. In Washington, I was interviewing a woman named April Lassiter, who is extremely anti-choice, and I had an emergency message from a friend, a married woman who was 40, had a kid and got pregnant again by accident. She was trying to decide whether or not to have an amniocentesis. She knew, given her age, that she was high-risk for the baby to be in trouble. She wanted to talk it out, but she ultimately decided not to have the amnio, because she wasn't going to have an abortion. I was telling April this story, and she said, "I don't understand why she wouldn't have an abortion. Aren't your friends all pro-choice?" I said, "Of course all my friends are pro-choice. Why would that mean that she would automatically have an abortion?" April believed that if you were pro-choice, you would automatically have an abortion. I had to laugh. She had the same types of preconceptions about pro-choice women that I had about women who were anti-choice.

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A lot of the young feminists you talked with are very much against affirmative action.

From what I can see, many leaders in the country who are in the anti-affirmative action movement are young white women. I think a lot of them feel put down by it. They feel so cockily competent, for right or wrong, that the notion that they would need "special protection" makes them feel diminished. Whether it is true or not, they can and do mount some pretty good numbers for the fact that affirmative action is not necessary for women. The numbers are not what is relevant. I think what is relevant to them is that they feel diminished by the assumption that they would need it. One woman said to me, "If somebody would not give me a job because I was a woman, I can take care of that myself." Some of it is: "I don't need anybody standing behind me to give me a hand on this. I am a big girl." They feel it is paternalistic, though they would never use that word.

Who are these young women's heroes?

Ronald Reagan. There were not a lot of women available to them. In my vocabulary, they are not very "woman-identified." I am trying to recall if I ever heard any of them mention a conservative woman who they looked to. I cannot think of one.

What was it about "feminism" that conservative women found so objectionable?

It is really interesting. Their definition of feminism has very little relationship to mine. That tells me something about the way in which feminists come across to a lot of women in America. First, and most importantly, they define feminist as man-hating and humorless. They think that feminists are not respectful of differences among women.

Could you see where they were coming from?

Sure. I mean, the subtleties of the conversations that feminists have been having among themselves for the past 50 years are not what gets broadcast about feminists. If you don't know liberal women, and you are not part of those discussions all the time, you see the paper-doll version of feminism, just like we see the paper-doll version of conservative women. So, if you are at all older, especially, there is no way that you would not think that feminist women have contempt for housewives. Because in everything early that we did, we were so contemptuous, we made an assumption that housewives felt enslaved. And we were wrong. I think a lot of that got corrected later on. But that still lingers.

What kind of sea change has taken place in this country, whereby young women with all of these opportunities revile feminism?

They revile the word. I am not sure that they are reviling many of the most basic concepts. They are not reviling the concept of equal pay for equal work. Equal opportunity. A woman's right to forge her own destiny --

Not including choice.

It depends. Some of the conservative women were pro-choice. But usually they weren't. There are a lot of the basic concepts of feminism they are not reviling. It is the word "feminism" they hate, because to them the word means their paper-doll version of liberal, pushy women from the Northeast and California who are telling them what they are supposed to be doing with their lives. I think that a lot of the sea change is that they are competent.

If the younger women lack a historical view of what feminists have done, they also often lack a view of what conservatives used to say and how incredibly unfriendly the conservative movement was to women, to people of color, to a whole swath of society. They don't know that. Some of it is that they are not trapped in the old assumptions of the conservative movement, any more than they are trapped in the old assumptions of the liberal movement. There was a moment where I was interviewing Genevieve Wood [a political commentator for the "Political Newstalk Network"]. She told me about the day she discovered that the Republican Party had been racist. It was like, she had to discover this! But she grew up, worked around Capitol Hill with J.C. Watts and a bunch of black conservative Hill rats. To her, the notion that there would be any tie between the two didn't make any sense.

One of the criticisms that was leveled against the '70s women's movement was that it was too homogenous. You did speak to some black conservatives, but on the whole, the picture you got was of a racially and ethnically homogenous conservative movement.

I don't think that you could come up with a good argument saying that the conservative political movement is very heterogeneous in terms of race. But in the social part of it, it certainly is. Figures that the Joint Center for Policy Studies did on the social beliefs of African-Americans show that they are unbelievably conservative. But you don't see it in voting patterns, which is probably what you are talking about. If you look at church attendance, in conservative churches in America, certainly, it is incredibly heterogeneous, racially. If you are only divining it politically, I think that you get a very different answer than if you look at the landscape in a much broader way.

Any ideas about how conservative women are reacting to the ruckus in the White House?

The reactions are totally predictable. They view the reaction, especially of women in general in the United States, which is kind of a big snore, we don't care, as proof positive of their position that the moral fiber of American has fallen apart. They also, and I hate to ever agree with them but I can't help but agree with them on this one, see the feminists as being hypocrites.

The other thing that they keep pointing out is that feminists don't really care about women. If they cared about women, how could they be silent about all these women coming forth? The other thing is Hillary. One of them said to me recently -- and I felt like I had been socked in the stomach -- she said, "Hillary Clinton is supposed to be a feminist role model. Feminists always said that women who were being humiliated by their husbands and treated badly by their husbands are not supposed to just stand by their man. So, how can feminists make fun of country and western songs about standing by your man when Hillary Clinton is being a country western song?" How can I disagree? Unlike so many of my friends, I do care. I don't like it. When it is my guys who are doing bad things, I get humiliated because they are supposed to be better.

Do you think there is any room for common ground between conservative and liberal women?

The other night I was having dinner with a bunch of people and in the group was this guy who is a Republican political consultant. But he handled the Bill Weld campaign; he was like a "good-guy Republican." He asked me if I would be interested in doing a documentary on conservatism. I said I would like to do one, and what I would really like to do at the end is bring together a group of conservative women and a group of liberal women who have already been interviewed and play the tapes. So they would be forced to see how frequently they agree. It really is the ultimate irony -- when people are having their private, non-saber rattling conversations, they agree with each other.

What do they agree on?

Conservative women think that liberal women are indifferent to the fact that there is a breakup of the family, and that the social foundations of the country are falling apart. Now, we are not indifferent to that. I don't know anybody who is indifferent to that. Take teen pregnancy: I had the exact same conversation with both sides on it. Also, the power of the religious right is a concern to liberals and to many conservatives. I mean, 90 percent of the conservative women who I talked to are horrified by Pat Buchanan. You have a conservative woman, like [former Rep.] Susan Molinari. She has said to me, "If I had a choice between [Vice President Al] Gore and Pat Buchanan, you better bet I am going to vote for Gore." Well, that is true with most of these women. There were a lot of these women who were constitutional purists. So, they were very upset by the religious right's agenda, on constitutional grounds. On everything about equal pay for equal work and those opportunities, even coming up with what most liberal women would agree to be a more nuanced way to look at sexual harassment. Really, I think everybody agrees.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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