What has gotten into Republican women?

GOP women freak out over losing reproductive rights, but embrace cruelty when it's someone else's rights at stake

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 8, 2023 6:05AM (EDT)

A woman wears a "Make America Great Again" hat during a rally hosted by former U.S. President Donald Trump (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)
A woman wears a "Make America Great Again" hat during a rally hosted by former U.S. President Donald Trump (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

Late last month, a bill that would have banned nearly all abortion (and likely would have been used to restrict hormonal birth control as well) was defeated in the South Carolina Senate, despite it being one of the most conservative legislatures in the country. The defeat drew national headlines in no small part because of how it went down: The only five women in the Senate, three of whom are Republicans, filibustered the bill into oblivion. At times, the Republican women sounded downright, well, feminist.

"Once a woman became pregnant for any reason, she would now become the property of the state of South Carolina," state Senator Katrina Shealy declared angrily during debate.  

South Carolina is not some outlier state where the rare bird of the pro-choice Republican flourishes, to be clear. In the same speech denouncing abortion bans, Shealy insisted she is still "pro-life." It's just that these women are learning a hard lesson, as are many other Republican women, both leaders and voters. It was easy enough to be "pro-life" when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. That meant you could sit in judgment of other women, without ever worrying that you or your loved ones would lose access. Indeed, it was easy enough to pass restrictions that made it harder for poor women or young women to get abortions, so long as Republican women could be assured their privilege would smooth the way for their abortions. 

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But outright bans on abortion, the kind that actually threaten the access not just of marginalized women, but well-to-do white ladies? That cannot stand! This phenomenon is joked about on social media as the "leopards eating people's faces party," due to a viral tweet by author Adrian Bott.

They can't yell at condescending husbands or abusive fathers, not without losing status in their communities. But that angst can be projected onto bogeymen.

The humor of this tweet depends heavily on the imaginary sobber being female. For better or worse, people understand why white men are Republicans: Because the GOP is built around the preservation of white male domination over everyone else. But why so many women vote Republican is a question that causes great consternation, since the party is not exactly subtle about its hostility to women's rights. Their last president and current party leader bragged, on tape, about sexual assault! Is it that these women hate themselves?

The tweet gets closer to the real answer: Republican women, like Republican men, enjoy cruelty to others. They also assume their class and race privilege will shield them from the misogyny of their party. But when that assumption gets rattled, they often panic. 

There's more to the situation than a mere love of punching down. Republican women understand that they live in a sexist society. They just tend to see feminism as a pipe dream not worth fighting for. A safer bet, to most of them, is to accept second-class status to men, and then try to leverage femininity and conservative politics to scratch out some level of status and power for themselves within a patriarchal system. That's how old-school anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly played the game: By organizing against the Equal Rights Amendment, she and her army of housewives gained political power and a voice, without stepping on any male toes and risking backlash. 

The Republican Party has gotten downright crafty in creating opportunities for middle- and upper-class white women to feel powerful by punching down while maintaining a submissive posture towards the men in their lives. Recently, David Gilbert of Vice published an in-depth look at how the new astroturf movement, Moms for Liberty, offers conservative women a chance to pull off that balancing act. The group focuses its efforts on banning books in schools and libraries, harassing organizations that advocate on behalf of LGBTQ kids, and bullying teachers and other school officials for offering real education instead of fact-free right-wing propaganda. Moms for Liberty has unleashed some deeply antisocial behavior in these women: 

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In Pennsylvania, the leader of a local Moms for Liberty chapter allegedly hijacked a dead woman's Facebook page to harass her enemies, including using the N-word and saying they should hang from a noose. In Arkansas, the head of communications of the Lonoke County chapter said that librarians should be "plowed down with a freaking gun." In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a member of a local Moms for Liberty chapter harassed an opposing group, threatened to report them for child abuse, and called them "pedophile sympathizers." In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, police had to be called to a school board meeting after members of Moms for Liberty accused attendees of being "groomers" and wanting to show explicit pictures to children. In Charleston, South Carolina, a Moms for Liberty-affiliated member of the local school board publicly stated he would show up at his son's teacher's doorstep with a gun if the teacher came out as transgender.

Hat tip to Natalie Wynn at Contrapoints for reminding me of the 1983 book "Right Wing Women" by Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin was a feminist polemicist who had a lot of ideas that don't age well, but in this book, she's got conservative women dead to rights.

"Women cling to irrational hatreds, focused particularly on the unfamiliar, so that they will not murder their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, lovers, the men with whom they are intimate, those who do hurt them and cause them grief," Dworkin wrote. "Because women so displace their rage, they are easily controlled and manipulated haters."

They can't yell at condescending husbands or abusive fathers, not without losing status in their communities. But that angst can be projected onto bogeymen. Bullying LGBTQ kids or banning books provides a socially acceptable outlet for that rage. They can wallow in being domineering and mean, and get commended for it, because they're doing it in the name of "family values." 

The face of this was neatly illustrated last week, when a bunch of Republican women in Montana decided to bully trans state representative Zooey Zephyr by taking the only seat she could work at after the Republican majority barred her from the floor for speaking out about trans rights. The photo of these women, who are downright gleeful in their cruelty, speaks volumes. 

It's no surprise it's all women. Transphobia gives them a chance to step out of the thankless role of being servile and deferential, letting them play the role of the bully. It's hard for most of us to imagine being so incredibly petty as to spend even one moment of our limited time on earth doing something like this, but it's safe to guess these women don't have a lot else going on in their lives.  

Indeed, anti-abortion politics has long provided this outlet for a lot of Republican women. They could go to clinics and harass patients going in. They could work at anti-abortion centers, trying to trick vulnerable women into not getting an abortion. They could post lengthy diatribes on Facebook about how feminists are man-haters, and collect the accolades for their supposed Christian purity. It's all fun and games, as long as Roe stood and they knew they could quietly access abortion as needed. 

Then Roe was overturned and that two-faced approach suddenly became less tenable. Abortion bans rub Republican women's noses in the fact that the men in their lives would rather they be dead than free. Most of these women are skilled enough at cognitive dissonance to find some excuse for ignoring that grim reality. They'll keep pretending that the "real" problem is feminists or queer people, instead of the men in their homes and beds who believe they don't deserve basic rights. But, as the South Carolina situation shows, some of them are feeling forced to resist, often for the first real time in their lives. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Abortion Anti-trans Commentary Lgbtq Republicans Roe South Carolina Women