It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) until writer Mona Charen took the stage.
The panel — called “#UsToo: Left out by the Left” — was set to be a conversation about feminism and conservatism. Moderator Marji Ross asked the panelists what aspects of modern feminism make their blood boil.
The first two panelists, The Daily Signal’s Kelsey Harkness and author Ashley McGuire, cited concerns about the focus of last year’s Women’s March and feeling pressure to support Planned Parenthood. Then it was Charen’s turn.
While she said she agreed with Harkness’ and McGuire’s concerns, Charen said she wanted to answer the moderator’s question in a different way.
“I am disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women, and because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain.”
“I am disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women, and because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain,” Charen said. “The Republican party endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama, even though he was a credibly accused child molester.”
“You cannot claim you stand for women,” Charen started to say before the rest of her sentence was drowned out by boos.
Charen’s comments prompted a conversation among the panelists about the #MeToo movement — but the rest of the women on stage weren’t as eager to endorse the recent efforts to hold abusive men accountable for their behavior.
“One of the things that doesn’t get talked about is how this whole hashtag Me Too is increasingly driving men and women apart. It’s not good for women, it’s not good for men, and it’s not good for our society, because it’s driving a wedge between us,” Ross said. “The more things that really aren’t harassment that get lumped into being harassment, the more afraid and incapable we will be as a society we will be to work together, to communicate together, to talk to each other.”
Harkness, too, was cautious.
“I think the Me Too movement has been very important for women… Clearly this conversation was long overdue, but I also do not blame conservatives and conservative women for being skeptical about the Me Too movement and proceeding with caution,” Harkness said to applause. “I think that Me Too has a lot to prove… to conservative women that this can be good for you too.”
But during the three-day conference, young conservative women told ThinkProgress that the movement has been good for them.
“I don’t feel like I’m left out of it,” Katheryn Kost, a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told ThinkProgress Thursday. “I know plenty of conservative women that have chosen to take part in it.”
One person who has chosen to participate? Her roommate, Kristen Gonzales, who was also attending the conference.
“Because I have been affected… It’s nice to know there’s other people out there who have been affected,” Gonzales said in an interview. “It’s easy for me to talk about my story now because so many people are coming through with it. It’s not something I necessarily want to share all the time, but like from one friend to another I can say, like, ‘Hey, this actually happened to me,’ instead of feeling like I need to cover it up.”
“I feel like this is just something that every woman feels is important.”
Both Kost and Gonzales told ThinkProgress they don’t think the Me Too movement is or needs to be inherently partisan.
“I wouldn’t even say [Me Too is] bipartisan, because that’s the act that we’re like bringing them together,” Kost said. “I feel like this is just something that every woman feels is important.”
Another young conservative, Teresa Taborga, a student at Towson University, told ThinkProgress that she thinks more leaders should be encouraging young women to speak up. She said the Me Too movement is particularly important to her as a college student, given the rates of sexual misconduct on campus.
“Universities, they love covering that up,” she said, adding she “feels terrible” saying that but feels it’s important to discuss.
“I feel like this year it’s an important year to talk about mental illness, and the Me Too movement and take it serious,” Taborga told ThinkProgress. “Not just saying, ‘Me too,’ but, like, you know, we’re standing up, this needs to stop. I feel like it’s been helping. I don’t feel like anyone’s faking it or anything like that.”
Emily Middleton, another Towson student, said she knows many Republican women who demonize the Me Too movement.
“They feel like it’s a leftist push on feminism, whereas feminism itself isn’t a bipartisan issue, it’s a women’s issue,” Middleton said. “A lot of people on the right, they definitely see it not for the fact that it’s helping women but the fact that they think that it’s pushing an agenda of a particular political party.”
Middleton said she was sympathetic to that view, especially as high-profile liberal politicians and activists have publicly embraced the Me Too movement and tied it into other issues that she sees as more political, like protecting abortion rights and closing the wage gap.
“They feel like it’s a leftist push on feminism, whereas feminism itself isn’t a bipartisan issue, it’s a women’s issue.”
“It’s once politicians and celebrities got involved and took these people’s stories as bait to push their personal agendas is where I saw that [conservative engagement] cut off,” Middleton said. “I think that’s the point we’re at now, where we have a lot of conservatives who hear it and dismiss it because they hear ‘#MeToo’ and they think liberal and they don’t connect it with being a women’s issue.”
At least one young CPAC attendee, Emily Caffetz, a student from Colorado, said she does question the motives of some women who have spoken out as part of the Me Too moment.
“I really want to lean toward supporting these women and feel empowered, but at the same time, I’m skeptical, because I don’t know if they’re telling the truth or they just want to bring down these white rich men,” Chaffetz said. “When various women accuse Trump of sexual harassment, it’s like, okay, is that for political purposes? You just don’t know. You don’t know.”
But speaking out does still have consequences.
After the #UsToo panel ended Saturday, Politico reported that Charen, after shocking the CPAC audience with her rebuke of anyone in the party protecting sexual harassers, was escorted out of CPAC by three security guards for her own protection.
Kira Lerner contributed additional reporting.