How do we understand the contemporary conservative pride in political incorrectness?

One of the core principles of contemporary conservatism today is that identity — race, gender, sexuality — should neither entitle anyone to rights, nor imprison them in an ideology. Identity, conservatives argue, is something that liberals use to create constituencies around “special rights,” rather than human rights, and to insist on sameness rather than forms of social equality that acknowledge difference. Furthermore, identity is used to police and shame, and rejection of “political correctness” had particular power in the movement to transform people whose utterances might be otherwise understood as eccentric or odd into free speech heroes.

The recent Twitterstorm over pop star Kanye West’s support for Donald Trump is one manifestation of how greeting African American conservatives with disbelief and scorn feeds conservative beliefs that liberals are not interested in rational discussions about ideas, but only controlling speech, especially the speech of traditional civil rights constituencies like women and people of color. Thus, West’s April 25th tweet that “the mob can’t make me not love” Trump, that the two were brothers who shared “dragon energy,” and that West “love[d] everyone,” caused explosions of outrage on the left that tweets by, say, Trump supporter Kid Rock, don’t produce. Speaking directly to a conservative audience, West embraced his individualism and defended his right to be black in his own way. “I don’t agree with everything anyone does,” West argued. “That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”

Prominent women in the conservative movement see liberal feminism as the opposite of what gender equality should look like. Christina Hoff Sommers, who describes herself as an “equity feminist,” recalls the collapse of her relationship with liberal feminism as having begun at a conference panel in the 1980s, where her dissenting views caused her, in her own words, to be “excommunicated from a religion I didn’t even know existed.” Capitalizing on old stereotypes of feminists as ugly and humorless, Ann Coulter announced at #CPAC2012 that “all real females are right-wingers, and I can tell you that based on experience — and my bodyguard will back me up on this — all pretty girls are right-wingers.” And radio host Laura Ingraham, who rose to prominence as a conservative campus activist in the 1980s, has been a prominent spokesperson of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, a group that has specialized in discrediting women who speak out about sexual harassment since its inception, since the 1990s.

Liberal feminists began by promoting equality of opportunity and equal treatment, Heritage Foundation fellow and political scientist Christina Villegas argued in 2016, a goal that is broadly popular and consistent with conservative principles, the insistence on gender parity “in every area of academic, economic, social, and political life” was not. “Achieving these ends requires the vast expansion of centralized government, the redefinition of freedom, and the preferential application of the law to women based on their identity as a specially protected class,” Villegas explained. Liberal feminists’ “agenda is openly hostile to the American constitutional system, which is based on limiting the scope and character of the law in order to protect the individual rights and equal opportunity of both men and women.”

Far from eccentric, such views have a long intellectual history, the most modern chapter of which began with the successful mobilization of conservative women, under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The defeat of the ERA, a crushing blow to liberal feminism amplified by the role of this movement in sweeping a new conservative movement into the White House, created a moment of truth for conservative women: if the Constitution protected all rights, obviating the need for special rights, then how could it be activated to perform that function?

The answer is that it couldn’t — not without the kinds of litigation, and the threat of federal enforcement, that conservatives deplored. However, conservative women in the Reagan administration argued, if states and localities voluntarily explored their own laws for gender discrimination, altering all statutes to apply to men and women equally, federal intervention would be unnecessary. Both men, and women, would be free to self-actualize without being constrained, or assisted, by the state.

Thus was born the 50 States Project. Established in May 1981 and inaugurated that October at a one-day White House conference where representatives from all fifty governor’s offices met to discuss the legal and policy ramifications of the status of women, it promoted an affirmative conservative solution to a social issue that had galvanized and revived left and liberal feminist activism for over a decade. Notably absent from the conference were organizations like the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Organization for Women, and other feminist groups that were viewed as hostile to the administration.

Following the conference, the White House activated the women’s network that had killed the ERA to lobby legislatures to support the revision of state laws. “Following the conference,” a 1982 report noted, “mailings were sent to all women elected officials throughout the country; to all members of the state and territory legislatures; and [to] Presidents of Federated Republican Women’s Clubs.” But significantly, by running the initiative out of the West Wing’s Office for Intergovernmental Affairs, and not Elizabeth Dole’s Office of Public Liaison, the Reagan administration signaled for the first time in history that gender equality was not actually even a “women’s issue.”   And unlike the Equal Rights Amendment, states would not be signing on to a federal policy, but rather devising their own policies, on a voluntary basis. “It cannot be overemphasized that this is truly a state-level project, “the press release concluded; “one to be planned and implemented by the Governor and the state legislature – with whatever encouragement, advice or assistance the White House can provide.”

Yet, when the project languished, it was eventually transferred to Dole in June 1982, who had had to disavow her feminist past to pursue her ambitions in a new Republican party that had, in part, harnessed anti-feminism as a strategy to win the White House. Dole’s buried past had included support for the Equal Rights Amendment in North Carolina, a key state where defeat turned the tide against national ratification, that she only relinquished reluctantly. On a questionnaire Dole filled out for the White House press office, her preferred response to the question “How do you feel about the ERA? “was: “I have no strong feelings about it one way or another.” In the margin, a White House aide wrote: “NO – negative. Clean up.”

In fact, Dole framed the 50 States Project, not as a substitute for ERA, but as the state-level reforms that should have been pursued in the first place. If the amendment had passed, something like this project, which examined existing laws in all states, would have been “mandated.” What Dole was undertaking at the President’s request was a “voluntary effort,” a cooperative equality project “where each state is asked to help advance the equality of rights for women.” Democratic governors, she argued, would be wise to participate. If discriminatory laws were not remedied, that would be “something that the voters in [a governor’s] state should know about and presumably they will act accordingly,” Dole warned, because “equal rights for women is not a partisan issue, but something all citizens should be concerned about.”

In other words, Dole reframed the project of women’s as an issue that transcended gender and ideology, positioning liberal and left feminists as the source of potential discrimination — against men. Privately, however, Dole was concerned that the White House desired a purely cosmetic solution to the problem, particularly since her office was repeatedly denied a budget and a staff that was equal to the task of coordinating fifty legislatures and governor’s offices.  Furthermore Dole, and the White House policymakers to whom she reported, persisted in believing that the task of women’s equality could be taken away from feminists and done instead by conservative women’s networks. These groups, Dole noted in a memo to Vice President George H.W. Bush’s staff, were “highly organized with memberships at the grassroots level to implement their plans, programs, and projects.” They were moderate or conservative, “not single-issue oriented,” and/or had “experience in dealing with state legislatures.”

For a variety of reasons, The Fifty States project did not succeed in eliminating barriers to women’s success. But its emphasis on promoting gender equality without promoting gender identity politics shaped the conservative landscape we inhabit today in two ways. The first was, of course, to carve out a stance for conservative women to inhabit feminist aspirations without identifying with feminism itself. But the second, and perhaps even more influential effect of the project was created an opening to understand men as an object of gender discrimination. When Jo Lee Norris, appointed by Utah’s Democratic Governor Scott Matheson, delivered her report, she noted that the panel had found three areas of concern, two of which — a minimum wage law that discriminated against male minors and sexual harassment laws that only protected women, disadvantaged men. In Mississippi, a commission appointed by the governor made laws addressing sexual crimes gender neutral, thus creating a whole new set of potential victims — who were male. Between 1970 and 1981, Mississippi proudly reported, statutes passed by the legislature to promote gender equality had made alimony available to men; regulated the relations of female guardians and male minors; made the enticement of males by employers illegal; prohibited abusive language by women; prohibited sexual relations between female teachers and male students; made male minors subject to statutory rape laws; prohibited voyeurism by females; prohibited the abduction of male minors by women for the purposes of marriage; and made it illegal to fondle a male without permission. New legislation made age of consent laws applicable to men, and “rape a crime for both sexes rather than solely a male crime.”

These snapshots from the Fifty States Project point, not just to the deliberate dismantling of identity-based claims to equality, but the ways that efforts to produce gender neutrality could easily confer benefits on men and criminalize women. In fact, the recognition that men suffer from sexual abuse and harassment was a not unimportant step forward, if one that had been largely unanticipated by most feminists or conservatives as an outcome of a women’s equality agenda. Yet it also shows the limits of a conservative model that, beginning in the 1980s, resisted the notion that the law could or should rectify imbalances of gender power in important realms that were not sexual, such as education and the workplace. Furthermore, while the insistence that individuals like West and others who embrace conservative solutions are somehow alienated from their “correct” identity interests is simplistic, the history of how conservatives sought to divorce identity from equality is not just a history of an equality agenda that never happened. It is also the beginning of a moment when men’s rights moved to the center of conservative women’s agenda — and feminism moved to the margins of the GOP.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter. This post drew on files from box OA6409 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.