Women’s Limited Role at the National Conservatism Conference

Rachel Bovard giving a speech on Monday at the fourth National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C.
Photo: NatCon/X

When I walked into the fourth National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., this week, I noticed how many men there were. Most were young, white, and clean-scrubbed, and they greeted each other with a deep seriousness. There were a few women, tabling for various causes; others dotted the audience during the opening plenary. I don’t mean to dismiss them. They, like the men, are true believers, partners in this work of cultural transformation and political conquest. But the gender ratio is difficult to ignore. So is an explicit obsession with white Christian fertility, which consumes the speakers and animates the crowd perhaps more than any other subject.

Faith, family, and fertility are “the new mainstream,” Chris DeMuth of the Heritage Foundation told a pale and predominantly male crowd. A former Nixon aide who once led the American Enterprise Institute, he later complained of an “atomized, feminized, self-absorbed culture” that had come to prize individual autonomy above all else. He didn’t explain what he meant by “feminized,” but he clearly thinks it’s a fate to avoid — an obstacle, perhaps, to the making of babies. Natcon godfather Yoram Hazony would go on to say that no matter how many immigrants you have, if you’re not having children, your nation is finished. Baby-making is the only “honorable” thing to do, he said.

Anti-feminism is key to the natcon project, then, and so are women. Someone has to birth all the babies. Though such a fixation is hardly new on the right, it helps distinguish today’s natcons from their peers. Natcons see themselves as defenders of faith and folk in opposition not just to the left, but to the more mainstream right. They’re the fringe, for now, but several panelists worked in the Trump White House and could return should he win re-election. Trump may want to distance himself from Project 2025, but natcons have embraced it. Paul Dans of the Heritage Foundation defended it in a speech on Wednesday afternoon. Earlier, I’d picked up a Project 2025 sticker with Reagan’s face on it. Later, I passed a Liberty University booth and grabbed a pink and white sticker. “Biblical Femininity, Not Feminism,” it read.

After DeMuth opened the conference, we heard from Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a powerful “networking hub” for conservatives in D.C. She’s an accomplished conservative operative, as David Brooks observed after a previous NatCon. During her time in the swamp, she’s worked for Republicans like senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, and the National Journal dubbed her one of the “Most Influential Women in Washington Under 35.” She began her speech, though, by establishing a different set of bona fides: her status as a mother. She’d been up since early that morning with her newborn, and she thanked her own mother and her husband for their help.

There’s nothing wrong with Bovard’s gratitude, let alone her motherhood, at least on the surface. I’m a feminist, and feminism does not denigrate mothers but works for a world where women are free — to have children or not, to be full persons who can pursue their professional vocations and raise children at once, if that’s what they want. That world does not yet exist. As abortion access vanishes in much of the country, motherhood is not a choice but a trap for many, and it’s conservative women who have sprung the trap shut. Total victory eludes them still, but their goals are swimming into focus. At NatCon 4, it was obvious: A woman should be a nursemaid at home. There, she cares for her own children — unless she’s a scold, out there telling everyone else what to do.

Neither role offers women real freedom, let alone the autonomy that DeMuth abhorred. If having children is what makes a person “honorable,” as Hazony put it, then women are dishonorable unless they become mothers. Their status depends on a man, so they must work, always, on behalf of a particularly aggressive masculinity. Though women’s roles are narrow here, they are still influential. Like Bovard, they can and do carve out public roles as natcons, just as women have always done within the broader right. Natcons know they need women, especially white women. They are a resource the men want to conserve for themselves.

That became clearer as the afternoon wore on, and Stephen Miller injected the conference with a familiar poison. He claimed the world’s “fugitives” and “predators” see the U.S. as a likely place to pillage, speaking of a mother of five who was raped and murdered and a 13-year-old girl who was raped in a park, both of them allegedly by male immigrants. Miller was obsessed with rape, in fact, and with women and girls. Voters wanted to know that their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their wives could go out jogging and come home safe, he insisted. The “Democrat” party put them in danger, sacrificed them, even, to the hordes, he implied.

But natcon women aren’t merely props. They do speak, as Bovard did, but they often restrict themselves to traditionally female concerns like sexuality and reproduction. Toward the end of the first day, I attended a panel on “Big Tech and Big Porn,” chaired by the Daily Wire’s Megan Basham, author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman’s Guide to Having It All. Of the four speakers, two were women: Clare Morell of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Emily Jashinsky of the Federalist. Here I learned that women could also be the movement’s scolds, an old role they’ve repackaged for the digital era. Morell wants porn out of the reach of children by imposing age-verification laws, free-speech concerns be damned. To Jashinsky, ethical porn production and consumption are both impossible. Another panelist, law professor Adam Candeub, backed age-verification laws but — raising his voice — said that American conservatives should avoid porn altogether, saying, “Bad men, bad male libido.” That didn’t seem to worry everyone. During the question-and-answer period, a male college student wanted to know why they shouldn’t try to ban pornography for everyone and not just children. Morell said that starting with porn bans for children is more feasible and “builds momentum” for “furthering things down the road.”

NatCon’s porn scolds bear a strong resemblance to Anthony Comstock, a fanatical 19th-century Christian who crusaded against social impurity. Nobody on the panel mentioned the Comstock Act, which banned the dissemination of “obscene” matter by mail, including pornography and materials that could produce an abortion. As The 19th reported earlier this year, the act hasn’t been enforced in decades. But Comstock has fresh relevance after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs opinion overturned Roe. In a recent lawsuit before the Court, anti-abortion plaintiffs cited Comstock in their bid to force the FDA to revoke its approval of mifepristone. The Court dismissed the case on standing, but the Comstock Act looms.

At “Beyond Dobbs” on the third day, panelists referred obliquely to the act. The U.S. Postal Service has become “Planned Parenthood,” according to Katy Talento, a former Trump administration official and naturopath. “There is a law that says organizations are not allowed to ship abortion pills or other devices and equipment used for abortions across state lines” through the mail, Talento added, saying, “This is on the agenda for a pro-life administration.” (She also once said in-vitro fertilization “feeds this cultural entitlement that we have for … godlike powers over life and death.”)

In keeping with prevailing trends, the Dobbs panelists included three women, more than I’m used to seeing at NatCon. One, Mary Margaret Olohan of the Daily Signal, dedicated her time to “gender ideology,” or trans rights, which panelist and longtime anti-abortion activist Tom McClusky identified as an impediment to the production of children. “We breed. They don’t,” he said. Instead, he said, liberals “neuter” and “sterilize” their children. After Olohan finished misgendering collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas, Emma Waters of the Heritage Foundation began her remarks as Bovard did, by emphasizing her own motherhood. She went on to praise trad-wife influencers on social media and urged “cultural solutions” like matchmaking and arranging dates for your children.

Women had power here, of a sort, but it was dependent on whether they made the right choices — to marry a man young and reproduce with him. After all, it’s what we truly wanted. Abortion is “disgusting,” Talento said during the Q&A. “It is against nature. It’s against every woman’s desire.” A woman’s decision to keep or abort a pregnancy in “large part comes down to the man, the father involved,” Waters told one attendee. The idea that a woman may not want children for her own, independently formed reasons seemingly didn’t occur to the panelists. She had only the two options: to be a nursemaid at home or a scold to discipline others. When women “who control sex value it too cheaply,” men have no reason to marry them, Talento added. For natcons, women have little worth outside sex and reproduction.

That much was clear by the time the Dobbs panel convened. On the second day of the conference, two right-wing Christian leaders took the stage: Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention and Doug Wilson, a popular and extreme pastor based in Idaho, where he founded the unaccredited New Saint Andrews College. Their presence was a statement with implications for women. Mohler has embraced criminal penalties for some women who receive abortions. “I think there is varying moral accountability,” he said on a March episode of his podcast. “And this is where, by the way, the law knows how to make distinctions. The law makes distinctions between manslaughter and between murder and first-degree murder and premeditated murder, all kinds of things. In other words, there are distinctions made in the law.” To Mohler, men are God-ordained leaders at home and in church, and women must submit to them.

Though Wilson shares that belief with Mohler, he arguably takes it several steps further than the Southern Baptist theologian. Heterosexual sex “cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party,” Wilson wrote in his book Fidelity: What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man. “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” Christian women are simply prettier than “unbelieving” women, he has argued on his blog; the latter “either compete for the attention of men through outlandish messages that communicate some variation of ‘easy lay,’ or in the grip of resentment they give up the endeavor entirely, which is how we get lumberjack dykes.” Anti-LGBT bigotry is a compulsion for Wilson, who could not get through his NatCon speech without a slur, but pedophilia may bother him less. He once asked a judge to show leniency to Steven Sitler, a New Saint Andrews student who molested a child in the early 2000s. He later presided over Sitler’s wedding to a young woman in his church — only for Sitler to return to court because he’d become sexually stimulated by his infant son. Wilson welcomed him back to church. Now Wilson has found his own haven, despite or perhaps because of his past work.

Though this is a small conference, the crowd is on the march. Senator Josh Hawley in a speech proudly declared that “I am advocating for Christian nationalism.” So has his wife, Erin, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom who recently invoked the Comstock Act before the Supreme Court. The ultimate success of national conservatism may depend on women: the ones who already believe, and the ones they come to control. They didn’t invent “Biblical femininity,” but here, the sentiment feels like a threat.

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