The Right Kind of Woman
Iowa's election was a referendum on womanhood
After Iowa’s derecho hit, I was forced back into an office because I didn’t have wifi at my home. For several days, I worked with my colleagues in a conference room filled with laptops and wires and not enough plugs. We all wore masks. This was the first time we’d been together since the pandemic, and we were here because our town was destroyed and our own homes needed repair.
In one of the early days, as we sat working, a colleague turned on a press conference where Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer was urging the governor and federal agencies for support and help.
Help was so long in coming. People were homeless for days. Finkenauer was one of the first politicians to demand help.
As we listened, a colleague said, “I just hate the sound of her voice.”
I snapped my head up from my laptop and looked at him. “That’s kind of a sexist thing to say,” I said. The “kinda” doing a lot of work buffering here, because my boss and my boss’s boss were in the room and also this colleague was senior to me.
No one said anything.
We all kept working.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a comment like that. The first time came my first month on the job. I was doing an event where I talked about politics on stage with my colleagues. During a break, a female colleague took me aside to tell me I was being too loud and she didn’t like the way I was talking.
Her comment came like a slap across the face. She later apologized. But the point had been made. You are here, but you must stay in line. We want your voice, but only as long as it is quiet.
The newspaper did not write a story about that news conference. They did write a story about Chuck Grassley, though, highlighting his role in derecho response. A few days after that, the newspaper ran a story that criticized Finkenauer for using the derecho to play politics. It ran as news. My articles highlighting her role and the role of several other female leaders in the community ran as opinion.
Abby Finkenauer lost her race. It was a huge loss that was largely unexpected except by the Selzer poll, which I had previously criticized. I am still critical of the poll. Mostly because the Register’s write-up of it included a very sexist anecdote about Finkenauer and her challenger and now new congresswoman, Ashley Hinson.
The now-deleted story painted Finkenauer as a shouting woman and Hinson as a demur mother of two well-behaved children.
As if a woman’s children are a reflection on her character. As if a woman shouting is such a bad thing.
Now that the election is passed, Iowa is a state led by Republican women. It’s a type of modality of womanhood that rarely gets scrutinized. A modality of womanhood that stays within the confines of patriarchy and is rewarded with power. But that power can only go so far.
I was raised to be this kind of woman. A conservative woman.
I was 18 when my mother handed me a copy of Domestic Tranquility, a book written by F. Carolyn Graglia, a lawyer turned housewife, who argued that feminism was ruining women and society. My mother was at the time an Evangelical conservative. She had eight children and home-schooled us until high school.
I am her second child, and at 18 I was desperate to go to college and find a world outside the domestic sphere. The fight was getting brutal. My mom insisted that I spend a week planning and cooking meals for the family as part of my home-based learning. In my college applications, she had me write her title as “domestic engineer.”
I’d tell her I wanted a life of more than just home and children, and she would ask, “What’s so wrong with that?”
My mother felt failed by feminism. She was and is a smart woman, who had chosen to make her children her life’s work. I was 9 years old when Hillary Clinton said her famous cookies line. Telling the press in 1992, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
The comment was felt personally by my mother and the women around me in our small Evangelical community in Texas. The response was palpable. I still remember standing among a group of women, so lovely in their church clothes, angry, “How dare she?!”
And even a decade later, as I fought my mother to let me go, the anger was still there, on the pages of Graglia’s book. A palpable, “How dare she?!” to the entire second-wave feminist movement, which, as Graglia stated in a C-SPAN interview, broke a pact by criticizing other women’s choices. “When I was in the workplace,” explained Graglia, “it never would’ve occurred to me, back in the 1950s, to have said that homemakers were parasites. I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying anything like that. Betty Friedan and contemporary feminists broke the women’s pact because they were a group of women who didn’t like the homemaking role and they undertook to attack and to disadvantage those women who did like the homemaking role.”
This anger is still apparent in American culture. Evie magazine was founded in 2018 as a “Conservative Cosmo” for women who want to be strong, powerful, and successful, but don’t like feminism. In the hearings to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett, this tension has been on full display. Sen. Lindsay Graham voiced it when he lauded Coney Barrett for sending a message to conservative women who oppose abortion that there’s “a seat at the table for them.”
Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn echoed this sentiment and so did Sen. Joni Ernst. Both Republican women, they have co-opted the language of feminism with a full-form rejection of its precepts.
It’s apparently an alluring premise. All the go-girl power but none of the change of status quo. It’s alluring because it doesn’t challenge patriarchy; it works within its confines.
This version of womanhood is winning. Not just in Iowa, but around the nation. According to the 19th News, “There were 227 Republican women who filed to run for House seats in 2020, up from just 120 in 2018. A record-breaking 94 became their party’s nominee, far surpassing the previous record of 53 women set in 2004, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.”
This is concerning. Not because I have a problem with Republican women being elected, but because I have a problem with women being used as Trojan horses to take away the rights of other women and then being expected to pretend like it’s progress.
As a woman who got fired for going outside the bounds of accepted female behavior, I took Finkenauer’s loss hard.
Iowans punished her for not being a mother. For not fitting the model.
And that’s what this comes down to. Who gets to be the right kind of woman?
This is not a party-line problem. Democrats do this, too. This is also a media problem.
Democrats in the state did not know how to handle the Hinson campaign’s attacks. The sexist ads that showed Finkenauer with her mouth zipped shut registered little outcry. Additionally, Iowans have refused to vote out an accused sexual harasser, Nate Boulton, who is still in a position of power in the state. Iowa media certainly didn’t know how to handle it. Treating sexism as a “both sides” issue rather than a concept that ought to have been rejected out of hand.
I keep thinking about the Register deleting those paragraphs about Finkenauer and Hinson with no explanation. I keep thinking about how no media outlet has discussed the dangerous conspiracy theories and sexism of Representatives Jeff Shipley and Bobby Kaufmann and so many others. Except when I did it, on the opinion page.
Whatever else the Iowa post-mortem reveals, there is one thing for sure: Finkenauer got punished because she stepped up. Hinson, who spent much of derecho in quarantine, was rewarded because she was quiet and did nothing to upset the systems.
Chuck Grassley was once rewarded for his unruly independence. Joni Ernst has been re-elected as a reward for her absolute compliance with the party line. Reynolds, too. It appears what Iowans want are women who fall in line, rather than upsetting that line.
We want our feminism, completely inside the patriarchy.
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