Vanity Fair: “THEY SAY WE’RE WHITE SUPREMACISTS”: INSIDE THE STRANGE WORLD OF CONSERVATIVE COLLEGE WOMEN
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Young Republican women are aggrieved, outnumbered, defiant. And they aren’t going to apologize for loving the guy in the White House.
The College Republicans at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were having a cookout, which they had advertised on their Facebook page with a picture of Ronald Reagan grilling hot dogs. It was a sweltering evening in August, a week after protesters toppled the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier on their campus known as Silent Sam, and a month before Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Brett Kavanaugh had attacked her at a high-school party in the 80s. There were about 60 students gathered in an out-of-the-way courtyard off red-brick Connor Hall, all of them white, and most of them conspicuously polite boys (“Would you like a Cherry Coke, ma’am?” one asked). The girls, only about a dozen, looked like college girls everywhere today, in T-shirts and tank tops, shorts and leggings. Except that they were not like college girls everywhere, most of whom lean to the left and vote Democratic, or tell pollsters they plan to.
“They say we’re white supremacists, racist, misogynistic, and we have internalized misogyny,” said Cammie McMahan, 19, the College Republicans’ secretary, who wore a G.O.P. T-shirt, and a frown. I’d asked her and her friend Caitlyn McKinney, 19, what it was like being a conservative woman on their overwhelmingly liberal campus. “Name-calling is the first place they go,” said Caitlyn, who has that lilting North Carolina accent that makes everything sound gentle, even when it’s not. “They say they want to be all intersectional and everything,” said Cammie, “except when it’s us.”
Ever since 52 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, Republican women, now all but synonymous with “white women,” have become the subject of a protracted howl of outrage from more liberal circles. “‘White Women’ Becomes a Disparaging Term,” fretted the National Review in October, in a column complaining of the “vitriolic condemnation” of Republican women by mainstream media outlets. “Half of white women continue to vote Republican. What’s wrong with them?” asked The Guardian in November, days after the midterm elections, which saw only a slight movement away from the Republican Party by white women, despite two years of Donald Trump’s attacks on women, people of color, people who are transgender, and virtually anyone who doesn’t look like a backup singer for Lawrence Welk. But most mystifying of all, perhaps, is the block of young white women who continue to support the president and his party when the majority of their peers have reacted with revulsion. I went to U.N.C. to talk to some of these young women who align themselves with Trump, and to find out how it feels to be among the most despised women in America.
“It’s really hard to date here,” said Gabby Derosier, 19, a sporty, dark-haired girl who was sitting at a wrought-iron patio table eating a hamburger. “Liberal guys match with me a lot on Tinder because they like to argue. I put it right in my profile that I’m a conservative woman. But then they kind of want me to be like the guy in the relationship and . . .” She made a face. “I like a man to be a man—like a lumberjack. Liberal guys are really feminine.”
Along the darkened path leading out of the cookout, as I was leaving, another young woman stopped to say hello; I told her that I was there, too, to find out why some young women still pledge their loyalty to Trump even with the accusations of sexual assault against him. And she told me she had been raped her freshman year. “He took advantage of a naïve freshman. He expected sex and I didn’t know that would be expected. So Republican women know about Me Too,” she said. “But please don’t say my name. I have to be so careful with applying to law school.”
“Being a conservative woman in college is like being a part of ‘Fight Club,’” wrote Maggie Horzempa, 21, in a column in the Washington Examiner in June. “And what’s the first rule of Fight Club?” she told me, low, sitting out of earshot of other students at U.N.C.’s brightly lit Stone & Leaf bookstore café. “You don’t talk about being a conservative.”
Maggie, who is white and blonde, and has the face of the girl on the cover of an edition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, is the chairwoman of U.N.C.’s College Republicans and the president of the campus chapter of the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), a national organization dedicated to fostering conservatism among women on college campuses (43 chapters, including Harvard and Princeton). In August, she appeared on Fox News, wearing a Republican-red jacket, to discuss the felling of Silent Sam. “One thing that we cannot condone is the mob rule that took place,” she said in her soft-spoken way, part Ivanka Trump and part Tracy Flick. She decried the “vocal minority” that had “allowed anarchy to rule on our campus.”
Maggie’s politics had elicited some controversy at her school. “I was called a bitch for carrying a Trump poster across campus,” she told me, sharing that she had voted for the president in 2016. “I was at a mixer where a very intoxicated girl came up to me and said, ‘I hear you’re a Trump supporter’ and almost hit me. I was told I was a ‘disgrace to womanhood’ because I wouldn’t sign a petition for reproductive rights, because I don’t believe in reproductive rights for women.” She had so much friction with someone in her dorm who objected to her views, she said, that she had to move into a single room.
Her mother, a divorced stay-at-home mom in Jacksonville, North Carolina, had wanted her to transfer schools, but Maggie said the attacks on her beliefs only deepened her commitment to conservatism. While she’d started out as a music major—her first two years at U.N.C. she played the cello in the symphony orchestra—she was now majoring in political science and philosophy and planned to go to law school, with the hope of one day “entering the political sphere.” On her Facebook page she had posted a picture of herself with an avuncular-looking Karl Rove at a campus event. “He was so nice,” she said, beaming. “He told us to just keep doing campus politics and that would be a good way to meet people.”
She grew up in a Republican household. “When I was little,” she said, “I would sit with my grandfather on Saturday mornings and we would watch Fox News and he would say, ‘Never trust anybody that trusts a Clinton,’ and I still remember that.” So when Donald Trump came along with his chants of “Lock her up,” this resonated with her, as did Trump’s financial success. “He made very smart business decisions,” Maggie said, “and you would hope that he would hone in on these skills to build up this country.”
She didn’t believe Trump was a racist, she said: “I think [his racist comments are] a mix of what he actually feels and political theater. Being a businessman, I think, he knows how to sell something, so he’s trying to create this brand, because he knows if he keeps saying these things, people will keep watching and wondering what is he going to do next and that will intrigue some to vote for him.” Someone like her.
As a young woman who did describe herself as a feminist, I asked, didn’t she find Trump’s steady stream of sexist comments troubling? “Some could argue that Bill Clinton was just as bad,” Maggie said evenly. “Some could say this type of sexism goes back as far as the Kennedys and their sexualization of women.”
Maggie admitted, however, that like other Republican women she had developed “mixed feelings.” “I have shifted my focus from Donald Trump to Ivanka. I read her book Women Who Work twice, and I look at her as a role model. She juggles a lot and yet remains true to traditional feminine values.” And what would “traditional feminine values” be? “She has a strong sense of self and family and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for who she is,” Maggie said. “Even though I did not have a traditional family myself, I still believe in the traditional family and the benefits it brings to society.”
Maggie’s father, a Marine Corps officer, had moved out of their family home on New Year’s Eve when she was six and her little sister was four. “My mom looked in the closet and all his stuff was just gone,” she said. She rarely saw him after that. “But honestly,” Maggie said, “I could not imagine my life with a dad. My mom is a great mom, she’s the best. People like to say, ‘You must be a conservative because your father’s a conservative’; well, I was raised by my mother,” whose own father had been a sergeant in the air force, “so that refutes that myth.”
At a protest that took place on the sloping lawn at the entrance to the university a few days later, I asked U.N.C. students, “What do you think of when I say ‘conservative women’?” “Ignorant,” “confused,” “dependent,” “narrow-minded,” “calling the cops on innocent black kids,” “brainwashed,” were some of their answers.
Around 250 students, professors, and people in the community had gathered to demonstrate against the neo-Confederates who had come from surrounding towns to stand vigil beside the empty pedestal of Silent Sam. The statue was donated to the school by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and erected in 1913 with a speech by a prominent local Klan supporter who bragged that, “100 yards from where the statue stood,” he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”
The students chanted: “Nazis, go home!” and “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand!” The self-described “preservationists,” a few dozen of them, stared stoically into the night, one of them waving an oversize Confederate flag. Students posted their videos to social media and danced in a drum circle with glow sticks. And then, as the cops tried to escort the neo-Confederates back off the campus, things seemed about to turn violent. Students swarmed the procession, pushing, shouting, giving the neo-Confederates the finger; cops blew their whistles, pushing back with their bikes. The stench of pepper spray filled the air. Students went reeling, coughing.
“I don’t think Donald Trump is racist,” said Caitlyn McKinney, one night in September over dinner at the Top of the Hill, a Chapel Hill restaurant with a view of the mountains. “He’s just making himself a consumable product,” said Cammie McMahan. Like Maggie, Cammie and Caitlyn said they believed the president’s stoking of race hatred was just politics—a kind of “branding.”
And didn’t that bother them? I asked. “Morally, I don’t stand with him,” said Cammie. “He’s not moral,” said Caitlyn. “But what he represents for the Republican Party, I strongly support,” Cammie said. “He was against the Establishment, against having to do the bidding of special interests. He got people off their feet to care—because we were just on a downhill spiral!”
“We were!” said Caitlyn.
To their minds, the Obama years, with their economic recovery, passage of health-care reform, and the ending of the war in Iraq, among other wins for the Democratic president, had been a disaster. Originally a Ted Cruz fan, Caitlyn said that when Trump won the Republican presidential primary, “I started listening and I just liked what he said. He doesn’t care what people think about him. Like, he’ll tell it straight. And our jobs are coming back, the economy’s growing. When he says he’ll do something, he gets it done.” Although both of them were too young to vote for Trump in 2016, they said they will in 2020 if he runs for re-election. “I would say I’m a big Trump fan,” Cammie said, grinning. “I have TRUMP 2020 stickers. I have a WOMEN FOR TRUMP T-shirt my parents got me when they went to Trump Tower.”
Both young women said their political views had brought them the derision of their fellow students. “I can’t wear my College Republicans T-shirt to class because I will get dirty looks,” Cammie said. “I can’t have a political sticker on my laptop because if somebody sees it in the library they’re gonna say something to me.” When they were attacked for their conservatism by students in class, their professors, they claimed, never rose to their defense. “They agree with them!” said Cammie.
They both came from conservative families. Caitlyn, a nursing major from Durham, was one of five children and had gone to a Christian school. Her mother, who worked in a law firm, and her father, who renovated houses, were still married. “My dad brings me a biscuit from Sunrise Biscuit every Sunday morning when he comes to pick me up for church,” Caitlyn said, smiling. Cammie grew up in Moyock, North Carolina; her father had retired from the navy after 30 years of service and now worked as a safety-training officer, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Cammie was a bio major and planned to go to pharmacy school. Both young women felt empowered, they said, to work toward their goals with no restrictions or obstacles because of their gender.
“I have never felt oppressed in my life because I’m a woman,” said Caitlyn. “I feel oppressed at this campus because I’m a conservative,” said Cammie.
While Cammie conceded that sexism did indeed exist, she said she didn’t see it as an “overall trend. It happens more on an individual basis now,” and therefore, she said, “there’s no need for feminism in our modern society. We’ve reached a point where everyone is fairly equal among the sexes. Like, of course I would have been a feminist in the 1920s and 30s, but in 2018 I have never had any limitations set on me because I was a woman. If anything, I think there’s a slight bias to try to give women opportunities.”
Over discussions of the wage gap, the unequal number of women in management positions, and other indications of systemic sexism, the young women were ready with conservative talking points as counter-arguments. But the main issue on which they diverged from the majority of their peers was abortion. “I am strictly pro-life and I’m never gonna change,” said Cammie. “I believe life begins at conception.”
“Yes, so do I,” Caitlyn said. “Like, ‘Thou shall not commit murder.’ When you get an abortion, you’re breaking one of the Ten Commandments.”
And what about in the case of rape? I asked.
“It’s not that baby’s fault that it happened,” Caitlyn said. “When I hear about people who have abortions, it kind of upsets me ‘cause it’s just an inconvenience to them to have that baby, right? And, like, incest accounts for only a small portion of cases.”
Cammie looked thoughtful. “I think Plan B is morally permissible because conception can occur anytime in the six days after sex. So I think it’s O.K. And Plan B is, like, perfectly accessible—you can get it at Walmart and Target. If I was raped, I would do that.”
But Cammie and Caitlyn also felt they were not in a position to judge any woman who decided to have an abortion. Cammie said her parents wouldn’t allow her to date as long as she was in school, and Caitlyn said she was saving herself for marriage. They were virgins, they said, which made them the target of another sort of mockery among their peers. “I’ve been forced to take ‘the purity test,’” Cammie said, referring to an infamous online questionnaire that originated at Rice University, a favorite among college kids wanting to rate their levels of debauchery.
She’d briefly had a Tinder account, she said—”my profile picture was me and Caitlyn in our SOCIALISM SUCKS T-shirts”—but she got rid of it “because it was just for hookups.”
“I don’t know how it’s liberating for women to let men see them as just another hookup,” Caitlyn said, dismayed. “I want someone to actually think I’m special and love me.”
On September 27, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee transfixed the nation. In the reams of op-eds, think pieces, and tweets that flowed in the days after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, many complained about the complicity of white women in maintaining white male power. “These women are gender traitors, to borrow a term from the dystopian TV series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Alexis Grenell wrote in The New York Times, referring to the female senators who had voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Thousands of people tweeted a quote from Rebecca Traister’s timely book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger: “White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers.”
Traister’s analysis harkens back to the work of Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist scholar who died in 2005. In her 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, Dworkin explored how the conservative movement in the United States had succeeded in enlisting women in preserving male authority; but Dworkin went further. “A woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence,” she wrote. “Women know, but must not acknowledge, that resisting male control or confronting male betrayal will lead to rape, battery, destitution, ostracization or exile.”
On an October night at the Hops Burger Bar in Chapel Hill, Gabby Derosier was telling me how the conservative response to the Kavanaugh hearings had made her wonder about the attitudes of the men in her life toward sexual assault.
“I have wondered,” she said, “if I came to them with something like this, would they believe me?”
Like family members? I asked.
“Just, like, a lot of the men who are close to me,” Gabby said, grimacing. “I have wondered about it. And I don’t want to have to question that.”
Gabby called herself a libertarian. She was a member of Turning Point USA, the conservative student organization founded by Charlie Kirk, the incendiary 25-year-old right-wing activist. Raised in Raleigh, she identified as a Latina; her mother, a C.P.A., had come to the United States from Cuba as a child. Her father was a consulting physician for a pharmaceutical company and a “hard-core atheist,” Gabby said. Both of her parents were Republicans. She was a political-science major and a member of a sorority.
“I feel like there’s this unanimous sentiment among older male conservatives—I mean like 50 and above,” Gabby said, “and even among older women conservatives as well, of, like, ‘just don’t put yourself in these situations [where a sexual assault could occur], you can avoid it.’ It bothers me that there are some social things that they just want me to accept, like, ‘a guy will just be a guy’—but like, no. As conservatives we acknowledge gender differences more than liberals do, but that shouldn’t mean we excuse behavior that is within a man’s control and which women can’t always control . . . Like, where is the line we can all agree that someone should not cross?”
The problem with how the Republicans had dealt with the Kavanaugh hearings, Gabby said, was that they didn’t think through how it would look to a conservative young woman like her. “I think because the left was so focused on the sexual assault, the Republicans felt like they had to push hard on the whole ‘defend the boys,’ ‘defend due process’ thing. But, like, I already agree that due process is important,” she said, “and I don’t want anyone to get their lives taken away because of something that wasn’t true—I’m on that side. But I also know that rapes happen on this campus all the time, and lots of girls don’t even feel like they can report them because of how no one’s going to believe them or help them for lack of ‘evidence’ or whatever.” She had written a paper for a writing class, she said, on how “campuses don’t do anything in terms of rape culture except for these totally ineffective webinars when you’re a freshman.”
Gabby seemed to be trying to work it all out. She said she wanted to believe that she “didn’t have to question conservative men’s views on sexual assault. If you listen to Ben Shapiro [the conservative political commentator] or Dennis Prager [the conservative syndicated radio talk-show host], although they’re very much for sticking up for men, they have the moral compass of the right.. . . As much as they’re about ‘protect the sons,’ they’re thinking about their daughters and their wives and their sisters, too—they are. I just wish that they would say that more often than they do.”
So did she think that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed? “I think he should have just stepped down,” said Gabby.
Over the course of my conversations with conservative women at U.N.C., a second one, who also did not want to be named, told me about a sexual assault. She said that it happened her freshman year, her first night at the school. “Was I ‘assaulted,’ ‘raped’?” she said. “I’m not really sure. I just know that something happened.”
She drank too much that night, she said, “I should have known my limits.” A young man followed her out of a party, she said, saying he wanted to help her since she was “stumbling drunk”; “I’m pretty sure he was sober.” The next thing she knew, she woke up with him asleep beside her, both of them naked. “I don’t remember taking off my clothes,” she said, “and I don’t remember consenting to anything.” However, “he told people we had sex. He told people and he acted like it was something I did willingly. But what could I say? What proof did I have of anything?”
She had never confronted him about it, because, she said, “I was afraid it would just make things worse.” And so the reaction from conservatives to Christine Blasey Ford didn’t surprise her “at all,” she said. “I was just surprised that she came forward.”
“There are rape kits available at the campus health services at U.N.C.,” said Caitlyn, over lunch at Top of the Hill, where we had returned in October to talk again. I’d asked her and Cammie what they thought about the problem of campus rape. “The university gives you tons of information about what to do if this happens to you,” said Caitlyn.
It was a few days after Brett Kavanaugh had been confirmed, and Cammie and Caitlyn said they were pleased with the decision. They believed Christine Blasey Ford was assaulted by someone, they said, just not by Kavanaugh (this was also the central conservative talking point).
Still, they said, certain things about Ford’s story had made them skeptical, including the timing of the accusation. “And, this seems really bad to say,” said Cammie, “but at the end of the day, even if it did happen, there was no penetration—it’s not rape.”
It was not as if she had never been sexually assaulted herself, Cammie said. “I went to Las Vegas with my mom for my Sweet Sixteen and I was walking next to a moving sidewalk and this strange guy totally reached out and grabbed my boob. I mean, it shouldn’t happen—but I’m not gonna obsess over it.”
Over the weeks that I had been talking to them, they had told me about times they had been catcalled and sexually harassed online; they were coming of age at a time when such things seemed so routine they didn’t bat an eye. A certain fraternity on their campus was notorious for its “basement,” they said, a place where “they take girls down there and roofie them, rape them, run a train.” And yet they weren’t worried about the cultural implications of the Kavanaugh case for themselves, they said, but for young men. “I’m scared for all the conservative guys I know,” Cammie said. “Heaven forbid you ever have an opportunity in life and it’s just ruined because someone has a different political agenda than you.”
“And the idea that women should be believed unconditionally is sexist,” she went on. “It’s putting us in victimhood, saying people should just believe us because we’re victims of this great big patriarchy that runs our lives. Oh my God, the people walking around in The Handmaid’s Tale costumes!” She paused for an eye-roll. “Give me strength.”
Once again, their views had gotten them into trouble with their fellow students. On a Facebook page, a boy had re-posted a tweet which said: “Christine Blasey Ford is a UNC grad. Let’s replace Silent Sam with a statue of her.” When Cammie and Caitlyn added comments to the thread, questioning Ford’s story and voicing their support of Kavanaugh, they were jumped on. A female student responded, “Imagine hating other women so much to have an opinion like that.”
“They don’t want to hear our opinions at all,” said Caitlyn. “The most depressed I have ever been is at this campus,” said Cammie.
In the second week of October, Maggie appeared on a panel entitled “Gender & Politics: A Carolina Seminar” at U.N.C.’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. It was set to take place in a large conference room with about 100 chairs facing a dais. There was a poster on the wall with a picture of a Black Panther wearing a “Free the Panther” button.
Maggie arrived an hour early, dressed in heels and her Republican-red blazer. She was the only student appearing on the panel—which she had been invited to join after complaining to one of the organizers of the event that there were no conservative women slated to speak—and she seemed a bit nervous. “I’m a conservative student and it’s going to be all these liberal adult women in local politics,” she said worriedly.
After a while, the room filled up with adults and students, mostly young women with ponytails and long straight hair, in T-shirts and shorts and leggings. Maggie sat on the dais next to the other panelists—three white women, one African-American woman, and one Latina woman—looking wide-eyed as they spoke movingly of the roadblocks they had encountered along the way in their political careers, including sexism and racism.
When it was Maggie’s turn to talk about her roadblocks, she said: “People find out I’m a conservative and they assume they know me and what I stand for.. . . I have been considered to be less of a woman because I’m a conservative.” The moderator, Gloria Thomas, director of the Carolina Women’s Center, asked her what had attracted her to politics. Maggie said, “I feel God was calling me.”
A shuffling sound arose in the room. Some of the students began to whisper, titter. Verla Insko, the Democratic whip for the North Carolina General Assembly, seemed to come to Maggie’s defense, turning to her and saying, “I’m glad to have you here.” Insko told the young people in the crowd, “You have to learn to talk across the aisle to people that have different opinions, to listen to what they say and be willing to engage in debate.” Some in the audience gave begrudging nods.
And then, in the discussion that followed, a young woman directed a question to Maggie. “What do you think about having Silent Sam on our campus?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Silent Sam was taken down unlawfully,” Maggie said in her tidy way, “so my understanding is that he has to be put back up lawfully.”
The crowd began to hiss. If they had been persuaded to listen to her for a moment, now she had lost them. One by one, the other women panelists told the crowd that they supported the removal of Silent Sam, that he was a symbol of white supremacy. Maggie stared straight ahead, resolute, blinking.
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