Episode 108: Conservative Women Speak Up

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…America is politically divided. And many women with different views are not talking to eachother…

“And I said oh, I’ve got a dinner tonight and she said, what’s your dinner, for? And I really didn’t want to tell her. And I finally said, it’s a Republican dinner. Why would you want to go to that? Well, because I’m a Republican. Really?”

Some liberals want to encourage more understanding…

 “I think liberal women have some blame to bear here. In the sense that we have continually underestimated, discounted, disregarded and pooh-poohed conservative women’s concerns.”

 And politics can spill into the workplace…

“Don’t discriminate against me in the workplace just because I’m conservative or a Christian. Get to know me and get to know my fellow conservatives and let us work together for the good of what we’re trying to do.”

Coming up…listening to eachother and working together when we think we have little in common.    

So I will come right out and say here that I did not vote for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. You are probably not surprised to hear that. But unlike a lot of my friends in liberal New York City, I wasn’t surprised when he won. I traveled enough within a hundred or so mile radius last summer to see just how much support he had.

His win and everything that’s come with it has really made me think about conservative women’s viewpoints. I wanted some conservative voices on the show.

So in this episode you’ll meet two conservatives and one avowed liberal who is dead set on brining women together for the good of democracy.

My first guest is Jennifer Szambecki. She grew up right in the middle of the country, in Wichita, Kansas. She went to college locally, lived in Boston for a while but then came back home. She’s in her late 30s and she and her husband live in Wichita; his daughter from a former marriage lives with them part of the time. Jennifer works in technology…on the marketing and user experience side of things.

She describes herself as a Christian conservative. But she did not grow up that way.

“My parents were very liberal – still are – and raised us to vote for the Democrats and against the Republicans. And generally identified as liberals or progressives. I’m not sure what we called it in the ‘80s and ‘90s growing up, but that was how we identified as a family.”

AM-T: “So what happened?”

“Well, I went to college and when I graduated I got first job out of college I could find and it was in the non- profit community doing marketing and volunteer recruiting…and a couple of things were happening at same time. One, I was making a fulltime income and paying taxes and at the same time, I was working with populations who were on the receiving end of government programs and benefits.”

She worked for a mental health nonprofit at first. It got plenty of government funding, and she spent as much time filling out forms and checking boxes as she did with patients and volunteers. And at the end of the day she says the organization wasn’t having that much impact – no one was officially measuring outcomes. Yet the nonprofit kept getting that federal funding. She says it just seemed so dysfunctional…

“I have experienced at least a devastating disconnect between lawmakers and the people at the other end of the laws.”

She’s not saying the government doesn’t have any role to play in people’s lives. But she says she began to think a lot about how policy really worked…and became more and more convinced that the federal government was sprawling and inefficient.

“So I became, much to my parents’ chagrin, a practicing Republican.”

She’s not a Republican who voted for Donald Trump last year. But not for the same reasons liberals didn’t. She says he didn’t seem to care enough about American’s enormous budget deficit – the fact the US is spending so much more than it’s bringing in. She’s worried…

“That we’re gonna have to make dramatic, drastic, un-strategic cuts that will impact some of the biggest consumers of government programs…” 

Like women and children.

“…when or if those have to be cut dramatically to balance a budget or bring us into some kind of homeostasis that is gonna be really devastating.”

AM-T: “You mean like Medicaid?”

“Yes, Or schools. All of that. I think we can be strategic about what works…replicate what works when we’re able to or cut when we can, just be more measured about it.

The thing I think that concerned me most about Trump was the he wasn’t talking about any of this really at all.”

AM-T: “And what about his personality and some of the thing things he’s been caught saying about women, did that bother you at all?” 

“Oh sure, yes. That bothered me a lot. But I mean not to defend him, I’m also bothered by lots of things I’ve heard politicians say. But I’m also bothered by the CEO of Uber and other people…he’s obviously not representing me in government…but I would say that’s not why I didn’t vote for Trump but it was a factor, it wasn’t the biggest factor but it was a factor. And it wasn’t how he spoke about women but how he speaks about literally everyone that would be the factor for me.”

And speaking of attitudes to women, I wondered where, as a conservative, Jennifer stood on the F word.

AM-T: “So what do you think of the word feminist? Or does that word make you run screaming into the forest?”

“It definitely does not want to make me run screaming. I do identify as a feminist. To me and my experience including my experience with amazing conservative and Republican women I work alongside with and volunteer with here in Kansas, I think many would describe themselves as feminists. Those who wouldn’t, they have negative baggage with that word, but if you look at their lives and philosophies and their actions you’d probably be able to identify them as such. To me there is no disconnect between feminism and conservatism.”

AM-T: “But some of your friends do think there’s a disconnect, right?”

“Yes, yes…I have received many tweets and Facebook responses and people speaking to my face and in other ways challenging me with sentences like, how can you be a woman and a conservative? Or, how can you be a woman and be in the Republican party? That doesn’t make sense to me, because I am a woman and I am in the Republican party. So I don’t know how to answer it. I’m not sure it’s anything other than a rhetorical question, than a point in the form of a question, but I never know quite how to respond.”

AM-T: “How do you respond?”

“I say I believe conservative values are best for men, women, children and best for society as a whole and I am fighting to restore them in my life.”

Becky Davidson has a lot in common with Jennifer, at least on the surface. She’s also in the Midwest, St. Louis. She too is in her late 30s and she also works in technology. She’s an IT manager for a big company.

“I would probably say I’m a Christian conservative but maybe a good way of putting it is a loving and open Christian conservative.”

AM-T: “What does being a conservative woman mean to you, do you think conservative values are better for women as a whole?”

“I do…and I believe they’re better as a whole because the conservative viewpoint is more of believing you can do it, and you’re not necessarily a victim. To me a lot of the liberal viewpoint is more calling out different demographics as victims.”

That idea does not sit well with Becky. It seems limiting; disempowering. She says she’s had the occasional sexist experience at work but most of the time she’s pretty content in her largely male workplace.

I asked her to talk about something that had quite surprised me when I first heard from her. You know, she has this good career, and she and her longtime boyfriend are involved in Republican politics. But Becky says…

“In my perfect world I’d be a stay at home mom with kids…when I first graduated from college I watched people. There was a bible study that I was part of and there was a gal in the bible study and you could see that she was working until she could get married and stay at home, and I didn’t want to do that. If I’m gonna work I’m gonna pursue a career and do it with everything I am. And if I do have that opportunity to change lanes and become a stay at home mom, I’ll pursue that with everything that I am.” 

She accepts that even if she and her boyfriend marry she may not be able to have children. So she’ll keep pushing forward at work.

AM-T: “You were talking about the whole women as victims thing and how that’s one of the things that’s a big turnoff about the left. Do you ever feel even if it’s not you personally but your viewpoint, sort of patronized or maligned or misunderstood by more liberal women or by the left as a whole?”

“It’s interesting to me that you’ll hear the left talk a lot about you should be welcoming and inclusive and when that viewpoint – when they don’t share the same viewpoint it’s not as welcoming or inclusive. To me the perfect example of that is Kellyanne Conway.”

Conway of course was President Trump’s campaign manager. She is now a counselor to the president.  

“She is pilloried by the media, many of my more liberal friends will talk, they’ll make fun of how she looks, how she talks, everything. And I want to say hey, she’s the first woman campaign manager who won a presidential candidacy. She’s the second woman that’s actually ever run a presidential campaign but she’s the first one who ever won, and yet all that’s done is attacking her.”

She sees a lot of hypocrisy there. Still, she says she doesn’t often speak up about her views when she’s surrounded by people on the left.

But occasionally it happens in a one-on-one. Becky got a new hairdresser a few years ago. There was the usual beauty salon chit-chat during that first appointment and Becky says it soon became clear her hairdresser was as liberal as she was conservative. For a while, she kept her mouth shut.

“I think I went in about 2 years ago and I said oh, I’ve got a dinner tonight, and she said, what’s your dinner for? And I really didn’t want to tell her. I said oh, it’s a dress up dinner. Oh, what’s it for? I finally said oh, it’s a Republican dinner. Why would you want to go to that? Well, because I’m a Republican. Really? Explain to me why Fox News hates black people…I had to say well, no, Fox News doesn’t hate black people, my boyfriend is a black man and he’s been on Fox News, but we started talking. And then last spring when I went to get my hair cut she had a Bernie shirt on and I asked her why she liked Bernie.”

Again, they had a conversation. And then came the election of Donald Trump.  

“So I was due for a hair cut right around the inauguration. And I thought you know I’m just gonna give her some time because I’m betting she’s really upset about Trump being elected as president, and I’m guessing she’s probably going to go and do the women’s march the day after so I’m gonna wait for a couple of weeks. So I waited and I went in and said hi and she said oh I’m so excited you’re here, I can’t wait to talk about the election with you. To me it was the best compliment because it meant she felt safe talking over what had happened, and what we each thought about it, realizing we were diametrically opposite in our beliefs.”

So about that women’s march right after the inauguration…I suspected Becky hadn’t taken part.

AM-T: “You didn’t go on one, did you?”

“No, no, no, no…to me it wasn’t a women’s march or a march for women it was a march for liberal women. Several friends I have who were pro-life were interested in engaging in this and they were not welcome.”

She’s right. In a minute, we’re going to meet a liberal woman who is trying to bridge that gap.

Lauren Leader Chivee is a liberal through and through.

“So I think I am very representative of a lot of women in the bubble. Which is, I grew up in Washington DC in a completely Democratic neighborhood, I went to a very liberal, socially progressive school, I came to New York, went to Barnard College and lived on the Upper West Side. I have lived in the Democrat bubble my entire life.”

Which you might think makes her an odd choice to start the organization she has. She’s co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a campaign to educate women – liberals, conservatives and anyone in between - about civic and political leadership so they can get involved in politics. And make women’s voices heard – which they largely are not, especially in national politics.

She says people on both sides of the aisle thought she and her co-founder were nuts to start something bi-partisan. But she says as a liberal…

“If you believe in women’s equality and the power of women’s voices you can’t just believe in that when it’s voices and women you agree with. You have to be willing to invest in women’s participation when you don’t agree, and we don’t all agree. Women are as diverse as the nation. And to ignore that to us that seemed like a big miss.”

She says they’re creating an environment where women can feel comfortable asking questions, learning about civic life in a way they haven’t before. She says it’s encouraging that more women are getting into politics, in the wake of President Trump’s election. But…

“All the civic engagement now has been organized around resistance and around being angry and about fighting. That has enormous power and enormous agency and I fear its sustainability. We need women participating in our democracy whether they’re pissed off or not.”

Lauren strongly believes that US democracy would be better if more women took an active part. But right now of the few female politicians there are, most are Democrats. And the problem with starting a bi-partisan group like Lauren’s when you live in a liberal bubble…

“I needed Republican board members and I needed Republican women who would support me, and I didn’t know any. It literally took me 6 to 8 months of outreach and networking to try to connect to conservative women who I knew might be passionate about what we were doing. And I will say, the relationships I have built with women who I thought I had nothing in common with because we had different political views, have been the most rewarding, most inspiring and most intellectually challenging relationships of my life.”

She says when she did her research she found the excessive partisanship in US politics…it was turning women off – and that was especially true of young women. She says they don’t want to have to double down on the most divisive issues, like abortion, to go into politics. And that brought us back to the women’s march.

“The women’s march was about a lot of things. And it was a galvanizing moment here and around the world, but the organizers were explicitly clear in the planning for the march that women who did not support choice were not welcome. And they were clear about that because for many liberal women choice has been such a fundamental question around feminism, and liberal women often see it that way, that you can’t be a feminist if you are not pro-choice.”

As we heard earlier, Jennifer does consider herself a feminist – though her views on abortion are nuanced. Becky considers herself pro-life and not a feminist. Lauren would love to see women with different views on abortion come together anyway…

“What concerns me is that there are a huge range of other issues that have nothing to do with abortion where women largely do agree and are not coming together to mobilize because they are so divided on this other issue…a perfect example of that is paid family leave.”

She says American women across the board largely agree that there should be some.

And despite her own strongly held views, Lauren says liberals could be a lot more open to conservative viewpoints…

“I think there is a real frustration among conservative women that they’re so insulted and so dismissed and so put down on a constant basis by liberals who just think they’re all stupid. And I think that’s an incredible disservice. I was watching this video of Betty Friedan on a talk show in 1979…it was Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, who was a very conservative, very controversial, led the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment …the disdain and disgust of Friedan…who was an incredible icon and who I revere, I watched this recently and thought, God, we’re still doing this…and it galvanizes an opposition when you insult them. I happen to think Hillary Clinton was right in many ways about the basket of deplorables, there’s no question there was a lot of racism and anti-semitism and sexism that was ginned up by the president in his race. But that kind of insulting language of the opposition just inflames them, it enrages conservatives in this country even if they don’t support Trump. That kind of condescension of you’re all stupid is so not helpful. We have just got to get to a better place.

And she thinks eventually, some years from now…who knows how many… 

“I have this gut feeling that the first woman president may be a Republican. That somehow, I don’t know how to explain it, I think there is a level on which conservative America may be more willing to accept and embrace a woman president if she shares their values.”

Becky Davidson agrees. I asked her if she’d like to see a female president.

“I would love to, and actually I had a fantastic conversation with Carly Fiorina, during the campaign, and thought she was awesome. She wasn’t necessarily my first pick, we had the opportunity to have dinner with her during the primary and she’s someone who has fascinated me for a long time anyhow. She was the first woman CEO of a large IT company. So she very much intrigued me, we had great conversations with her. I would have loved to have seen her get further.”

 But she’d never vote for a candidate just because she was female. Becky is actively involved in politics and several years ago she worked on what became an infamous campaign. Some of you will remember this story well. A Missouri congressman called Todd Akin was campaigning on the Republican ticket to replace Democratic senator for Missouri Claire McCaskill. At one point he was doing a TV interview when he essentially said if a woman truly is raped – what he called ‘legitimate rape’ – she’s unlikely to get pregnant – he said her body, quote ‘has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.’ Uproar ensued.

“So I started on the campaign and about two weeks later he made his unfortunate comments and about two weeks after that I was a delegate at the Republican National Convention. So I was popular with the different news media sources because they couldn’t understand why a woman would support Todd Akin.”

She says look, he was not her ideal candidate…   

“He said multiple things that I was not thrilled about and on more than one occasion I reached out to my boss on the campaign and said, he can’t say this – he can’t say these things, I understand what he’s trying to communicate but he can’t say these things. And when I reached out to supporters there were a couple who said I think he’s an idiot, but I think he’s better than the alternative so yes, I’ll vote for him.”

As did Becky. She says she respects Senator McCaskill but did not want her to continue in that job, she wanted a Republican. Akin lost the election. McCaskill won a second term as senator for Missouri.

Lauren Leader-Chivee wants more women to enter politics, and not just Democrats like McCaskill. In fact, she’s willing to put her money where her mouth is.

“I spoke at the women’s leadership forum at the Democratic National Committee about a year and a half ago and I swear a trap door almost opened up and swallowed me, because I said that I had been making financial contributions to Republican women running for office. And there was this audible gasp in the room.  And I explained why, and the reason is that all the evidence shows that when women are in elected office they are more likely to be bi-partisan and to work across the aisle, and they’re more productive and more collegial. And so if we believe that Washington is broken and that we need a better functioning democracy I do think that women are the answer to that. I might be wrong, but I’d like to find out.”

 She is not the only one.   

And finally, I wanted to consider the whole question of talking politics at work. We’re often warned not to do it – but with this US election and its aftermath, keeping politics away from the water cooler...it was never gonna work. The thing is, if you live in a liberal east coast city like I do…pretty much everyone you talk to is horrified by the current political situation.

Jennifer Szambecki is in a different situation. She’s a conservative but she works in the world of app and website development, and in general it’s a pretty liberal world.

“I’m concerned at this moment because I think ten years ago it was perhaps easier to be in a workplace where I could be a conservative working alongside a progressive woman and conservative men and progressive men, and I’m afraid just the national dialogue has devolved into a disrespectful place. And I hear about that although I thankfully have not experienced that myself, that leaking into the workplace. And as I stay professionally plugged in to a career that will probably continue to have me working alongside, more likely to be left-leaning people, I hope we can continue to cultivate every type of diversity, including political diversity…because whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish together is most likely to be benefited from every kind of diversity which is basically in summary a plea to please, don’t not hire me just because I’m conservative, or don’t discriminate against me in the workplace just because I’m conservative or a Christian.”

AM-T: “Have you ever worried about that in the past that somebody might not hire you? Or are you just worried now because of the way everything’s gone?”

“Oh I’ve been worried about that in the past, yes. In fact I was not accepted by an Airbnb host once as my Twitter bio mentions Jesus. [laughs] So anyway, which is not a job obviously, but I was like, huh, that’s interesting, it never occurred to me someone wouldn’t want me staying in their apartment because I’m a Christian.  But I mean I get that, I understand people have been very hurt by others in the name of religion. Anyway, I do worry about that actually, especially in a more – I have always grown up in a more urban setting, I’m attracted to more urban settings, urban settings tend to attract more left leaning and liberal people, and I am afraid that my political activity and my willingness to be out about being conservative and Christian might hurt me professionally.”

Jennifer Szambecki. Thanks to her, Becky Davidson and Lauren Leader-Chivee for being my guests on this show.

As usual you can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. I would love to hear from you.

Next time on the show, I follow up with a guest who’s left her old life and traditional notions of success behind…

“I’ve always had a sense of self and of being an individual but I think as a woman when you leave what’s really comfortable and you go out and go on a really epic adventure like this that doesn’t have an end date, it’s given me a sense of self-confidence that I never had before.”

That’s next time on The Broad Experience.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.