A few days before the Pennsylvania primary last May, a group of left-leaning Philadelphia women held a nonpartisan forum so voters could get to know the candidates for lieutenant governor.
When Carmina Taylor, a leader with Philly Women Rally, announced the organizations the group had partnered with, she named Republican Women for Progress.
One of her fellow organizers walked out.
Deja Lynn Alvarez, who went on to serve as the co-president of Philly Women Rally and one of the lead organizers of this year’s Women’s March on Philadelphia, said she was blindsided to learn the organization had partnered with Republicans, wondering: “Why are you giving these people a platform?”
Philly Women Rally eventually splintered. At the heart of its split was a question that has dogged feminist organizations for years: Is the women’s movement, led largely by liberals, about ideology or about support for all women? And as Republican women fight for equality within their own party, some are asking where they fit in.
Alvarez, who recently announced a run for Philadelphia City Council, sees the current women’s movement — which in many ways was spurred by the first Women’s March in 2017 — as a liberal one that has a responsibility to fight the Trump administration. Identifying as a Republican today, she said, is akin to aligning yourself with the White House.
“If you’re Republican at this point,” she said, “you’re anti-immigration. You're anti-LGBTQ. You’re basically a racist.”
Plenty of Republicans reject that, and say they face the same problems the Women’s March and other movements like #MeToo rail against: wage inequality, sexual harassment, and a lack of support from their own party leaders. At the same time, they face hostility from a “Trump wing” in their party, said Malliga Och, an assistant professor of global studies at Idaho State University, whose research has focused on conservative women. Essentially, they have no home.
The Year of the Woman (on one side)
Diana Irey Vaughan, a longtime Washington County commissioner who’s made two runs for statewide office, said that while the Republican Party recruited her to run for state treasurer in 2012 and lieutenant governor last year, some of the support it promised “never materialized.” She lost both races to men.
“[Women] have to work, still, twice as hard proving ourselves to receive the same type of support and acknowledgment that men receive,” said Vaughan, who added that she’d like to see a women’s movement that represents all women regardless of ideology — one that leads to more women elected to public office on both sides of the aisle.
Women on the left made historic headway this year in Harrisburg and Washington, but the “Year of the Woman” didn’t yield the same results for Republicans.
In Congress, the number of Republican women dropped this year, according to an analysis by Och and Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden. Of 36 freshman women elected to the House, one is a Republican, they found.
“The danger of a too-narrow feminist movement is that it is too easily dismissed.”
Shames said Republican women face greater barriers to election. The Republican Party doesn’t have as strong an infrastructure for recruiting, training, and fund-raising for women, she said.
Women also struggle more in Republican primaries when the electorate tends to be more male and more conservative. Shames said women tend to be less conservative than men on the whole and are less likely than Democrats, who are largely more open to engaging in identity politics, to be celebrated for their womanhood.
Shames, who used to work with the National Organization for Women, said the question of whether to engage with and back Republican women has long been a point of contention in feminist movements. But, she said, the research is clear: Governments function better when they’re representative of the constituents, and feminist movements should support that even when there are ideological and policy differences.
“It’s essential that we have a movement and strong organizations based around the concerns of women as a group, not just the liberal women, and not just women who identify as feminists,” she said. “The danger of a too-narrow feminist movement is that it is too easily dismissed.”
Christie Whitman, the first and only woman to serve as governor of New Jersey and a moderate, pro-abortion-rights Republican who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, has been critical of her party’s lack of recruitment of women and said it would help if leaders spoke out “when members of the party act and behave like misogynists.”
She said feminist movements like the Women’s March “certainly started as empowering women,” but may have gotten away from those roots in favor of an increasingly liberal agenda.
“I don’t think it has to stay that way,” Whitman said, adding that women have the unique ability to fix partisan bickering.
Maybe the divide will be less charged in a post-Trump America, said Ariel Hill-Davis, a York, Pa., native who’s the director of policy for Republican Women for Progress, a national organization of anti-Trump women in the GOP.
“I’ll be curious," she said, "whether people can scale back the heightened emotional response and have trickier conversations around having a space where women across the full spectrum can come together and ask for better, increased representation.”
A more moderate Women’s March?
While this year’s Women’s March on Washington featured a large number of women who went to protest the Trump administration, about one-quarter of the crowd were first-time marchers, most of whom self-identified as moderate, according to a survey by Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who researches social movements.
Among those who stayed home this year, though, was Jennifer Pierotti Lim, a Republican who last year spoke at the Women’s March in Roanoke, Va., and in 2016 addressed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Lim is the cofounder of Republicans for Hillary, which morphed into Republican Women for Progress and is an anti-Trump group that wants to reform the GOP to work better for women. She said she wants her group to be like “the EMILY’s List of the right” — that is, a massive recruiting and fund-raising PAC that supports female candidates.
She initially supported the Women’s March organization but said the group’s leadership is too far from the ideological center.
“For all of the conversations about intersectionality, if they wanted to be truly intersectional, they would have people on their steering committee who are Republicans or women not from the coasts — women from the middle of the country,” Lim said. “We don’t have a wide enough scope of representation.”
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa has seen a gap between Women’s March leadership and attendees since the first year when her Texas-based New Wave Feminists was removed from the list of sponsors after an article questioned why the group, which is antiabortion, was officially participating.
But Herndon-De La Rosa and her group attended the march anyway and had “an overwhelmingly cool experience,” she said, as dozens of women thanked them for being at the march and said that while they may not agree on abortion access, they can work together on other issues like immigration, police brutality, and the death penalty.
Today, she said, she’s disappointed the leadership of the Women’s March leans so far left and said it’s gotten away from what once seemed to be its mission: being the backbone of the modern women’s movement.
“I wanted it to be a feminist movement,” she said of the Women’s March. “But when you listen to the stuff they’re talking about, they’re not celebrating conservative women getting elected.”