When I saw that the schedule promised an appearance by NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and a pajama party, I knew I had to check it out.
The Young Women’s Leadership Summit, put on this year in Dallas by right-leaning nonprofit Turning Point USA, brings together high school- and college-aged conservative women from all over the country. This year, the invite-only conference drew more than 1,000 to the Hyatt Regency near DFW International Airport.
It’s an interesting time to be a conservative young woman. I wondered who they followed on Twitter (spoiler: Ben Shapiro). I wanted to see what kind of young person would choose to spend a summer weekend in a hotel talking about politics. I wondered how they felt about supporting a president who’d been criticized for being anti-women, who had once bragged about sexual assault. I wondered how they felt about the Women’s March, and whether they worried about things like the gender wage gap and restricted abortion access. Most of all, I was curious if being a conservative woman meant ignoring women’s issues.
When I arrived at the hotel last Thursday, the place was teeming with scores of bright, energetic young women. As they stood in line, they introduced themselves to each other and took endless rounds of selfies. They hovered around a plate of cake pops, reconnecting with friends they’d met at last year’s summit. They wore heels and blazers and skirts patterned with little Republican elephants. Their excitement was palpable.
I picked up my press credentials from Turning Point’s communications director. He showed me to the press corral at the back of the conference hall, gave me a program, and noted what I could and could not attend during the four-day summit. Most of the breakout sessions were closed. He wrote a “5” on my schedule by the college meet-and-greet to denote that I was allotted five minutes there.
Meanwhile, outside the main conference hall, the line for the meet-and-greet with Ben Shapiro (also known as “Bae Shapiro” among these ranks) snaked around the foyer. Organizations like the Ayn Rand Institute and pro-gun group Empowered were putting the finishing touches on their booths. As they waited in line, women took turns holding frames emblazoned with phrases like “Future Senator” and posing for photos along a red carpet-style backdrop. I sidled up in line and asked as many women as I could why they’d come to this summit. Some offered full names while others declined to identify themselves.
“I think big government sucks,” said Sonia, who attends the College of DuPage in Illinois. (At the time, I didn’t realize just how often I was going to hear Sonia’s sentiment.)
Some had come to learn more about starting Turning Point chapters at their schools. Many envisioned a future in politics and wanted to make connections. Most were glad for the opportunity to be away from the liberal worlds of their college campuses and among other women with whom they agreed. Samantha, clad in blue pants, goes to Messiah College in Pennsylvania and is staunchly against abortion. “My college campus is really liberal, and it’s hard to connect with people who have the same beliefs as me,” she told me. “There were five people at my college campus who went to the March for Life and like 50 who went to the Women’s March.”
“My college campus is really liberal, and it’s hard to connect with people who have the same beliefs as me.”
Some women wore their conservatism like a badge; some skewed a little more moderate. Some loved Trump; others merely supported him. One woman told me that she had first championed Rubio, then Cruz, then finally resigned herself to Trump. “He really does want to make America great again,” she said.
Soon it was time for the opening session, so I ventured back to the auditorium and slipped to the back of the press corral. Pop songs blasted overhead. Each seat came with a “Big Gov’t Sucks” poster, and as cameras swept over the crowd, the women waved their signs and cheered. Soon a confetti cannon burst and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point, strode on stage. He thanked the headline sponsor (the NRA) and pointed out that there is no war on women—evidenced, he said, by all the conservative women in attendance. This weekend, he told the gathered crowd, “There will be no safe spaces.” He repeated it again, for the media.
I looked down at my schedule for this invite-only, women-only summit. The banquet keynote (Laura Ingraham, a few days shy of reports that she’s being considered to hold the routine White House briefings) was off limits to the press. We were allowed five minutes in the lunch hall, seven minutes to witness the Krav Maga self-defense workshop, and zero minutes at the pajama party. Political commentator Tomi Lahren, clad in a jacket with shiny sleeves, was up first. She talked a bit about the difficulty of being a conservative and urged the gathered women to stand up for themselves.
“The first female president, that’s a big deal for all of us,” she said. “I’d rather it not be Hillary Clinton—I’d rather it not be a liar or a crook.”
“Lock her up!” someone in the audience shouted.
“We don’t need to lock her up, she’s at Whole Foods, she’s hiking through the woods,” Lahren said. “Though I can’t talk—I’m unemployed too, so Hillary and I are in the same boat.”
When she opened the floor up to questions, no one mentioned her recent pro-choice remarks or departure from Glenn Beck’s media company.
Instead: “I just wanna ask what we’re all thinking,” one attendee said. “Where’s your blazer from?”
Lahren said she didn’t remember, but pointed out her merchandise booth to the right of the stage.
“I don’t live my life based off the color of my skin, or my gender. I’m an American, I’m a Christian, I have my beliefs, and that’s how I live.”Estrella Gonzales
As the speakers progressed, they speculated that one of the summit attendees might become the first woman president. There was also much discussion about the strength it requires to be conservative. And even though the recent shooting had some hopeful sense of bipartisanship, there was little of that reflected here. At the end of each speaker’s presentation, he or she answered a brief Q&A (with mostly questions like “Coke or Pepsi?”). The last question, though, was always about big government, and the response was always that it sucks.
Antonia Okafor, a Second Amendment activist, told the cheering crowd: “Yes, I’m a black woman, and I cling to my guns, my God, and my country!” Ginni Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller, invited attendees who’d faced discrimination for being a conservative to share their stories. A high schooler was blocked from starting a Young Americans for Freedom club at her school. A young professional wept on stage while describing how she was fired from her job when a co-worker discovered her political beliefs. Another woman wanted relationship advice.
“So, my boyfriend’s a liberal,” she began. The crowd erupted in a chorus of boos.
“Get a new one,” Thomas said.
The hapless young woman pressed on. Apparently she really liked the guy.
“If you think she should find another guy,” Thomas said, “stand up.”
Hundreds of women clamored to their feet.
Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, came across as genuine and personable. She told the crowd about her fear in moving to New York for culinary school and her pride in helping her father-in-law win North Carolina during the election. She explained that she’s going to be part of his 2020 reelection campaign. Near the end of her talk the entire assemblage sang “Happy Birthday” to Donald Trump.
Wayne LaPierre talked about the recent congressional shooting, which involved a female Capitol police officer.
“The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun—is a good woman with a gun,” he said.
In between the speakers, the young women attended 45 minute breakouts. In the “Using Digital Media to Amplify Your Voice” session, the presenter gave tips on posts that do well on social media and how to use plugins to find people’s contact information. Of-the-moment topics were largely closed to press, including one titled “What Does Conservative Healthcare Look Like?” Ironic, considering the Senate has been debating its own bill in secret.
Afterwards, I talked to Estrella Gonzales, who attends the University of Texas at Arlington. Her mother was born in Mexico, and her family were laborers and former Democrats. I wondered how she reconciled her family history with the president’s immigration policies. She told me about how her grandfather, a field worker in South Texas, used to carry sandwiches for immigrants who stopped to ask for directions. One day her grandpa discovered that his co-worker had been robbed and murdered in the fields. She conceded that immigration policy requires some meet-in-the-middle, but stressed that the president’s negative comments about immigrants weren’t about all immigrants and that there are bad ones.
In the end, though, it came down to this: “I don’t live my life based off the color of my skin, or my gender,” she told me. “I’m an American, I’m a Christian, I have my beliefs, and that’s how I live.”
That summed up the views of most of the women I came across. To many, gender was “just another thing,” as Calli Norton, from West Virginia State University, put it. “I don’t think it means you have a leverage, or a disadvantage. I feel like we’re all on an equal playing field.”
The attendees had strong feelings about abortion, religion, immigration reform, and, of course, the size of the government. They admired Ben Shapiro’s intelligence; they were inspired by Carly Fiorina’s success. Many had well-thought-out opinions, and their futures seemed bright. But I found it interesting that women (at a gathering of women) didn’t feel that being a woman had much to do with their world views.
As I was leaving on the second day, attendees were lining up to be photographed with NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. There I found Samantha, the pro-life advocate from Messiah College I had talked to earlier. She gushed about the speakers so far, all of whom she’d enjoyed. When it was her turn to snap a photo with LaPierre, she smiled brightly. Then she held out her journal.
She’d been taking notes on every speaker, she explained. She asked LaPierre to sign beneath her notes on his speech.
“Samantha—proud of you,” his inscription read. “Keep fighting.”