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Convocation review: “Pro-woman” speaker alienates her audience, leaves students’ questions unanswered

<iday, April 5, students, faculty and alumni filled the rows of the Chapel to hear Karin Agness Lips, president and founder of the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), speak at Convocation. 

Lips founded NeW in 2004 to empower and create space for female college students with conservative political views. NeW aims to expand intellectual diversity on campuses by sparking discussion related to politics, gender, and conservative principles. 

In her presentation “Feminism and Conservatism: Dividing Lines and Possibilities for Unity,” Lips spoke about the importance of permitting and celebrating diversity of political thought among women and asserted that one can be both conservative and “pro-woman.” 

Although the ostensible focus of Lips’ speech was on building unity between polarized parties, a small portion of her presentation was devoted to discussing areas of potential bipartisan consensus. She highlighted two issues which she believes all women should be able to collectively condemn: child marriage and female genital mutilation. Lips did not elaborate on how either of these horrific practices might be stopped.

Further, while Lips’ stated goal was to inspire solidarity, she made several claims during her presentation which appeared to alienate her audience and derail her mission. First, she rejected the statistical validity of the wage gap in America, claiming it is a myth mobilized by progressives, and consequently denied the need for an Equal Pay Act. Second, Lips claimed that women are not discriminated against in the workforce today and asserted more generally that “women aren’t systematic victims in this country.” Third, Lips argued that government intervention and regulation hinder women’s ability to both enter and succeed within the private sector, and should therefore feel personally compelled to support government deregulation. 

A particularly unsettling moment in Lips’ presentation was her lack of understanding regarding gender equality in the U.S. as it is measured statistically. The data, she claimed, must be invalid because the U.S. ranks below Zimbabwe, and “how could women be better off in Zimbabwe?” She did not elaborate on this point or on her own apparent perplexity. 

There were also several contradictions in Lips’ talk. For example, she challenged the claim that women are paid eighty cents for every dollar men are paid. However, she then went on to cite the fact that men work a greater number of weeks annually than women work and are also willing to travel longer distances for work than women. These differences, she argued, account for the pay gap between men and women—a gap which moments earlier she had insisted was merely a leftist fallacy. More importantly, Lips failed to consider the reasons why men work more weeks and are more “willing”—perhaps a better word would be “able” or “permitted”—to spend more time commuting to work. When asked by an audience member to address the reasons behind these differences, Lips chalked it up to “personal preference.”

A second contradiction emerged in Lips’ call to empower women to make their own choices. In an article written for Forbes in 2017, she stated, “It is time for modern-day self-proclaimed feminists to recognize that part of the success of the true feminist movement in this country is that women are empowered to think for themselves.” However, when asked about her stance on abortion at Convocation, Lips declined to comment. She stated that everyone in the room had already made their minds up about the issue and she knew she would be unable to change that. But by declining to comment, Lips’ position on abortion seemed apparent. It is worth wondering how one can wholeheartedly advocate for a woman’s right to make her own decisions while simultaneously supporting legislation which denies women bodily autonomy.

In reference to Lips’ refusal to discuss abortion, Caroline Kralovec-Kirchherr’19, Co-President of Carleton’s Women in Economics, said, “I was really disappointed by that because I think reproductive rights are an essential part of the women’s movement. That can’t or shouldn’t be compromised.”

At moments during Lips’ talk, her arguments were met with snickers, gasps, looks of confusion, head-shaking, and other nonverbal signs of disagreement and disapproval. In contrast, the questions students asked afterwards were immediately affirmed by other audience members through snaps and short rounds of applause.

The questions students asked reflected their skepticism of the statistics Lips cited, particularly the evidence she used to debunk the “so-called” wage gap. One student inquired whether or not the branch of feminism Lips described––which she calls “opportunity feminism”––is more accurately described as “white feminism.” 

Lips appeared to have great difficulty responding to students’ questions. Having attended Convocation, Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston said, “Many of the questions during the Q&A period requested an amount of specificity that were absent from the talk. The questions were thoughtful, engaging, and respectful.” 

In failing to explicitly respond to students’ questions, Lips invalidated her own message; she prioritized winning an argument over engaging in contemplative conversation that might have led to identifying points of potential unity. 

Unlike most Convocation speakers, Lips requested that her presentation not be recorded. She also asked that the discussion held afterwards at Convocation lunch be off the record.

In explaining the process of how speakers for Convocations are selected, Direct of Events Kerry Radt stated, “The Convocations Committee acknowledges that ideas need not be popular, palatable or even easy to digest to merit discussion. College is a place where ideas of all kinds should be openly explored.  At the same time, the Committee doesn’t seek to bring in a “controversial” speaker to agitate but to spark healthy campus dialogue.” 

While Convocation is meant to incite new ideas within the “Carleton bubble,” Lips’ ambiguous argument seemed to reaffirm students’ initial skepticism regarding her claim that one can be both politically conservative and “pro-woman.” It is doubtful that any consensus was reached that morning.

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