A Feminist's Transforming Encounter With Conservative Women

Reexamining Political Labels of Left and Right

THE RIGHT WOMEN, A JOURNEY THROUGH THE HEART OF CONSERVATIVE AMERICA SCRIBNER

By Elinor Burkett

288 pp., $23

For any and all out there who may have become fatigued by the news media's overuse of the mythical and generic soccer mom during the 1996 elections or by the stereotypes of women - conservative and liberal - endlessly bandied about by policy wonks on Capitol Hill, here's a book for you.

It purports to be about conservative women in the United States, hence the title: "The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America." But don't let the title deter you. The book is a journey through liberal feminist thinking as well.

As a liberal feminist, Elinor Burkett may not appear to be the most likely candidate to write a book about her female counterparts on the political and social right. But the entrance of seven ultraconservative women into the 104th Congress in 1994 made Burkett do a bit of ideological stock-taking.

How could these independent and motivated women, who seemed like natural feminists, declare that "There's not a femi-nazi" among them and brag about "their aversion to the very movement that had helped blast open the doors of Congress to them?"

Although Burkett was "tempted to follow feminist tradition and write these women off as pawns of men or unenlightened slobs trying to force all females but themselves back into the kitchen," she decided to discard all stereotypes and search out the answers. Taking off her "rose-colored feminist glasses" she began "a survey of the landscape of American womanhood, without blame, wishful thinking or disdain."

This untinted exploration of the thinking and lives of conservative women in America is what Burkett relates in her book. It is the result of two years of interviews across the country with scores of conservative women, and much of the story is told through their words and experiences.

Burkett profiles the lives and views of women like Teresa Doggett, a black woman in Texas who opposes affirmative action. In fact, that she is eligible for affirmative action because she is black and female "enrages" her: "I have no trouble supporting special programs to help those who have limited opportunities and advantages. But basing these programs on race or gender makes no sense at all," she is quoted as saying.

There are conservative women like Clara Pilchak in Michigan and Kay Sheil in Missouri, who are dedicated militiawomen and ardent opponents of gun control, and Libertarian women, who believe in "freedom from government on all issues at all times."

There are young conservative women like Corinne Johnson, who was shunned, humiliated, and even threatened at her small private college in Michigan because of her involvement as a conservative Republican in campus politics.

"The Right Women" also surveys Christian conservatives, small-business owners, pro-choice Republicans, female conservative intellectuals, and the next generation of female conservative Republicans who are building their careers within the Washington DC Beltway. Burkett balances objectivity, analysis, and humor. She is respectful of those interviewed without being an advertisement for their views.

Burkett's book doesn't sink to stereotypes, but true to her original intent, the absence of feminist rose-colored glasses allows the many-hued spectrum of conservative women in America to be clearly seen. The fact that she is a life-long liberal feminist means there is no sneaking suspicion that the book is some sort of Republican public-relations attempt.

Her concluding analysis of the relationship between liberal feminists and conservative women raises a number of thought-provoking issues as well. And whether or not you end up agreeing with her conclusions, Burkett's book is engaging and insightful, and extremely useful to anyone who would like to go beyond the soccer-mom myth and understand more deeply the concerns and lives of many American women.

* Sharon Johnson-Cramer is a former Monitor staff editor and currently teaches History at The Winsor School in Boston.

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