When I graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2009, I launched a parting shot at faculty and administrators in our student newspaper. After two years of them making me feel largely unwelcome on campus because of my conservatism, I called out the school for prizing all diversity save intellectual diversity and its insistence on teaching complex policy issues exclusively from the Left.
Republicans, especially conservatives, were regularly mocked in class. There was no real attempt to understand who we were or what we believed. Rather, we were typically presented as caricatures and our arguments as stupid or malevolent. There was no sense of goodwill and definitely no presumption of qualitative thinking. As I wrote in 2009:
I often find myself in classes hearing my political party and its members caricatured. Last year, a professor informed one of my classes that Mike Huckabee would be my party’s nominee, because we all take marching orders from the Christian Right. I’m not sure he knew there was a Republican primary voter in the room, that I’m a practicing Jew, or that my brain likes exercise.
But that professor, like many others I had, was never one to let facts stand in the way of a good stereotype.
I thought of all this while covering the Network of Enlightened Women’s (NeW) 2016 national conference. The group for conservative women has chapters on college campuses nationwide and for young professionals in New York and Washington DC. Rather like Empowered Women, another newish group aimed at conservative 20- and 30-something women, NeW aims to reclaim and redefine feminism, shifting the focus from victimhood to empowerment.
Established as a book club, NeW’s goal is to bring conservative ideas to women who crave them, train these women to speak confidently about their beliefs on campus, and provide a network for conservative women who may feel isolated and alone on their own campuses. One of the conference’s biggest messages: You are not alone.
That was powerful. There was a sense of relief among many women that they could speak freely. They were among others who understood, others who were curious to learn the missing conservative half of their campus syllabi, and others who believed in free speech and debate. There was also a sense of camaraderie, as I spoke to participants. I know from my own experience just how valuable that camaraderie can be.
The Pressures of Being In the Out Group
In many ways, it was difficult to be in Cambridge at the end of the Bush era, especially as a Bush administration alumna. Progressives were angry and bitter, and everything felt politicized. It may be that I was simply experiencing a shift campuses everywhere were undergoing, but it was notably different from my undergraduate experience several years earlier on the very same campus.
When I initially arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1996, it wasn’t cool to be conservative. Becoming one of the campus’ best-known conservatives—not that there was much active competition—wasn’t easy, either. I definitely took guff, like when my Hebrew discussion group laughed that first semester after I admitted I supported Bob Dole, or when I wrote anything violating liberal orthodoxy in The Crimson, our school newspaper. But what I experienced feels quaint by comparison to what I heard from some of these women.
One woman told me she thinks she’s had two conservative professors during her three years as a political science major. She presumes this because they’re the only two professors who have kept their political opinions to themselves. By contrast, when I was in college, what Harvard lacked in numbers, conservative government professor Harvey Mansfield made up for in his seeming ubiquity. The soft-spoken Mansfield was outspoken about issues that concerned him. He also became a mentor, leaving much-appreciated voice messages when he thought I had done a stand-out job taking the fight to campus liberals in The Crimson that day.
I met no woman who mentioned having any such faculty encouragement. So while I still remember a liberal feminist informing me at a Crimson editorial meeting that my conservative views negated my womanhood, her vitriol wasn’t universal. My classmates didn’t typically insult me for being conservative in class—where I mostly avoided politics by majoring in Hebrew literature—or around campus, where my I wore my politics on my backpack. I had liberal classmates who enjoyed asking my opinions and engaging me in debates. Those debates don’t seem to happen anymore.
Every student I spoke to save one said she identified as conservative; the last considered herself “open-minded” and curious about conservatism. Every student, from schools in North Carolina to Florida to Arizona, talked about her keen awareness that she was part of a minority on her campus.
We’re Open to Conservatism But We Hate the GOP
Some women saw their fellow students as not particularly ideological or curious about current events, simply parroting various liberal pieties when required as a way to get along. One student told me she feels students on her Florida campus “lean conservative, but they don’t realize it, because they think the GOP is a bunch of WASPY old men”—in other words, people who are nothing like them. Panelist Alex Smith of the College Republican National Committee supported this observation. Smith shared that millennials support conservative principles when they are generically branded; millennials just don’t support the GOP.
That general campus aversion clearly propelled some of the attendees to join NeW and attend this conference. Women mentioned feeling judged, being accused of sexism because they express conservative views, and being treated as “less credible.” Perhaps most depressingly, a student at a private Christian college admitted she feels uncomfortable sharing her opinions, which are rooted in her Christian values, on her campus.
Students from a number of schools talked about feeling that their opinions were not welcome in class discussions. More than one reported having professors interrupt conservative commenters, or having been shouted down or verbally attacked by other students in class. Is this supposed to foster an environment that promotes learning? Perhaps this simply underscores a point made by panelist Sterling Beard of Campus Reform, who noted, “Schools don’t teach students how to think anymore. Instead, they teach them what to think.”
That’s a problem. The continued existence of our free society depends on having adults who are capable of asking questions and reasoning critically for themselves. Educated adults need exposure to opposing points of view, both as a way to understand other people and as a way to sharpen their own thinking. As someone who spent six years surrounded by liberal ideas I didn’t subscribe to, I can attest that the experience didn’t hurt me. In fact, I believe it helped improve my reasoning and my ability to argue my beliefs with conviction. It’s scandalous that today’s college students, especially progressive students, are unlikely to ever have such an experience.
On the other hand, the fact that there are young women willing to ask questions and seek out different answers is noteworthy—and encouraging. The women of NeW deserve to be lauded for their courage. At an age when most young people simply want to fit in, these women are willing to stand up and stand out.