Conservative young Wisconsin women defy stereotypes

They’re spurned for not fitting the liberal mold, but they stand strong

By EMILY JASHINSKY | April 30, 2018

Tori Ziemanski has to be careful.

“I have strong political opinions, but I’m careful about when I talk about them and what I say,” says Ziemanski, a conservative University of Wisconsin-Madison business graduate who works as a project manager.

“I’m very aware that I could miss out on career advancements and opportunities if I’m vocal about my political beliefs, especially because they don’t match that of a stereotypical 25-year-old woman,” she says.

Defying those stereotypes can be challenging for conservative young Wisconsin women in the workplace, on college campuses and in social circles.

Alivia Fenney, 25, a recent college graduate who grew up in Hartford, says, “As a millennial woman, I often feel like people check the boxes for me and immediately assume that because I am a woman, I have liberal ideas.”

Caroline KitchensCaroline Kitchens, 28, who grew up in Sturgeon Bay, where her father, Joel, serves in the Assembly, admits she’s “had some awkward social interactions that have left me feeling ostracized because of my political identity.”

Kitchens, a federal affairs manager and policy analyst at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., adds, “I think that’s inevitable for young conservatives in any major city. But I think that’s a good thing for conservatives in the long run because our views are constantly challenged and we’re forced to refine our political views.”

Melika Willoughby, 26, is similarly unintimidated. She believes time spent in the ideological minority has made her stronger.

“Growing up in Madison gave me an incredibly thick skin,” she says. “I was a Christian, conservative, home-schooler in the hotbed of progressive liberalism and teachers unions. I learned that my beliefs were worth holding and defending because they were true, even if they weren’t electorally successful or popular.”

Willoughby now works on Capitol Hill as communications director for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and notes, “Being a conservative in Washington is a little like being a conservative in Madison!”

Wisconsin’s political landscape

Nationally, adults have long been more likely to identify as conservative than liberal, and that’s been the case as well among women in Wisconsin, where a 2014 Pew survey found 35 percent of women identified as conservative, 38 percent as moderate and 22 percent as liberal.

But the numbers change dramatically when looking solely at younger women, who — based on the 2016 presidential primary vote — are even swayed by socialist messages.

A 2016 ABC News poll found women ages 18 to 35 were much more likely to identify as liberal (38 percent) than conservative (26 percent). And although Wisconsin famously swung in favor of Donald Trump in 2016, exit polls show he captured only 43 percent of the women’s vote here and 44 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote.

Since the election, Trump’s support among Wisconsin women as a whole seems to have slipped further. Some female conservatives, of course, feel he does not represent their fundamental beliefs, while others remain committed to supporting the president.

The latest Marquette Law School poll released in March found a full 60 percent of Wisconsin’s female voters disapprove of Trump, with only in one in three expressing approval, roughly the same rate as his approval rating among voters ages 18 to 29.

Nationally, GOP support among women has declined as well since the presidential election. A recent Gallup Poll found the number of U.S. women who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning decreased from 37 percent to 32 percent from November 2016 to November 2017.

In this context, it’s easy to see why young women with conservative identities — regardless of their feelings about Trump — are acutely aware that their beliefs put them at odds with other members of their demographic.

The bias on college campuses

For young women concentrated on Wisconsin’s college campuses, mustering the courage to be open about their conservative beliefs can be daunting.

“I usually just don’t tell anyone what my viewpoint is because they often equate conservative with woman-hating, homophobic, racist, mean or other hateful things,” a young woman named Maddie says. (She asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisal.)

After putting a sticker on her laptop that identified her as a Republican, Maddie worried that professors would downgrade her, so she bought a new laptop cover. To get better grades, she often masks her conservatism and writes what her professors “want to hear” so as not to risk academic consequences for siding with Republicans.

Maddie thinks it’s even harder to be a young woman with conservative beliefs on social issues. “In my generation, it is really hard to be socially conservative,” she says.

“It’s one thing to tell people, ‘I'm fiscally conservative but socially liberal’ — usually people can accept that. But the minute you tell them you’re socially conservative, they either want nothing to do with you or they want to debate you for the rest of the day or night,” she says.

Kara Bell, a 20-year-old senior at UW-Madison who’s active in campus politics, has had similar experiences. “When advocating for conservative groups on campus, girls will approach me and ask, ‘What’s your stance on abortion?’ and then dutifully await a response in which they will counter with a barrage of eye rolls and disgust,” she says.

“Then, as a parting goodbye, they will ask, ‘How can you be a woman and still be against women’s reproductive rights?’ ”

Bell recounts an incident in which a student targeted her by tweeting at her sorority to ask how it felt about having a “white supremacist” in its chapter. “Conservative women have many targets on their back,” she says. “Oftentimes, they are stereotyped or squeezed into molds that portray them as someone they aren’t.”

But it’s not all bad news. Bell says incidents like the Twitter insult draw her closer to other conservative women.

“When that happened,” she says, “young women across the country contacted me to support me. I grew stronger in my beliefs, feeling more confident to speak up.”

Kitchens, too, finds support in her professional circles. “Through my job, I have a huge network of like-minded friends, including many smart, supportive women.”

Footsteps to follow

Young conservative women don’t have to look far for role models in Wisconsin. To name just a few: Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, state Sens. Alberta Darling and Leah Vukmir, state Rep. Jessie Rodriguez and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Bradley, Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler.

Rodriguez, of Franklin, tells of being rebuffed by a minority caucus for being a Republican after first being elected to the Assembly in 2013.

State Rep. Jessie Rodriguez“I learned quickly the power of stereotypes after my election to the state Legislature. A news outlet had informed me that the Democrat-run Black and Latino Caucus wasn’t sure whether to let me join their group, which would have been all but automatic if I were a Democrat,” Rodriguez says. “Perhaps the snub wouldn’t have been so big if they hadn’t already begun opening their doors to white legislators elected in minority districts.”

“I told the reporter I didn’t need to be a member of the Black and Latino Caucus to understand how to empower minority communities. This was something I did long before I ran for office,” she says, adding that voters didn’t send her to Madison to get bogged down in identity politics.

Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Fox News contributor and author who is married to U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), says, “Today, there are lots of angry people — and marches — purporting to speak for women.” She advises her state’s young conservative women to “speak out in confidence and good humor.”

Rachel Campos-Duffy“Conservative women consistently poll as the happiest demographic. It’s not surprising. Conservative women embrace and celebrate our femininity, including marriage and motherhood — which we do not see in conflict with our happiness. We seek cooperation and love with men, not a gender war that shames men and boys with dangerous name-calling like ‘toxic masculinity,’ ” she adds.

Campos-Duffy says a career spent in the media has taught her “there are many more people who think like us and share our values than we ever see on TV, in movies or in pop culture in general.”

Jill Didier, who served as the Republican mayor of Wauwatosa from 2008 to 2012 and is now vice president of Miron Construction in Milwaukee, advises young female conservatives to “stay true to your values that guide you. Then you can always stand strong in discussion, debate and decision.”

Tiffany KoehlerTiffany Koehler, a Republican from Slinger, offers similar advice: “Always remain true to yourself — in truth you will find peace.”

“As a conservative woman, more than half of my friends are liberal, and we have grown to find strength in our differences,” says Koehler, an Army veteran who has run for the Assembly. “We attack the issues, not each other. Listening to one another is so important. Many of us have much more in common than what divides us.”

They feel empowered

Women’s empowerment has been in the spotlight lately, and young female conservatives — despite their unique challenges — are feeling empowered, too.

“The current message of equality for women has given all women a platform to stand firm in their own convictions, even if they are conservative,” says Fenney, who works in public affairs.

The consequences that come with defying stereotypes actually fuel her drive to combat them. “I feel empowered as both a woman and millennial to use the tools in my own pocket to share my views and be a role model to young women everywhere who may feel that because they believe in conservative ideas, they are not valued,” she adds.

Citing the outpouring of encouragement she received following the Twitter incident, Bell says, “Being a young conservative woman is empowering.”

Even if their numbers are relatively small, there is still strength in them. Expressing a sentiment echoed by the other women, Bell says, “The support I receive from other conservative women encourages me to be more vocal.”

“You fight the fight because it’s good and true — not because it’s popular and en vogue,” says Willoughby. “You fight because you believe freedom empowers individuals, government exists to preserve equally the rights of all citizens, and the dignity of all life deserves defense.”

To borrow a catchphrase made popular recently by their liberal counterparts, these conservative Wisconsin women do what they feel is right: They persist.

Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner. Jashinsky, a Delafield native, was a Badger Institute intern in 2014 and served previously as the spokeswoman for Young America's Foundation.

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