I’m fascinated by Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit for the same reasons I watch ABC’s The Bachelorette. The dating show tries to awkwardly reconcile fundamentally opposed interpretations of gender roles in a woman’s pursuit of an opposite-sex partner. The woman crowned as the bachelorette each season represents a certain type of conformity. She is feminine, unattainable, a prize to be won, flirty, and non-threatening to masculinity -- the ideal future wife. At the same time, her role is highly subversive to traditional norms of courtship -- she’s “dating” 25 men at once. This scenario totally boggles the normative masculinity of the contestants pursuing her.
Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit, which targets college and high-school age girls, grapples with these same contradictions in a much darker and more prescriptive way. Speaker after speaker emphasized to the audience that they should become wives, mothers, and accessories to the astroturfed conservative movement rather than pursuing a demanding career. These themes were nearly identical to last year’s YWLS.
Yet this conference exists because of the labor of women on the right who clearly value their careers. Speakers like TPUSA influencer Alex Clark, Fox host Laura Ingraham, and The Daily Wire’s Candace Owens both covertly and overtly discouraged the audience of young women from pursuing high-powered careers — but it takes a lot of work to build an audience as a woman in right-wing media. Behind the scenes, Turning Point USA’s events and marketing leadership are also populated by women. Chief Marketing Officer Marina Minas’ biography says nothing of her achievements in the domestic realm. The same goes for the vice president of events, Lauren Toncich.
Forgoing a career in pursuit of marriage and motherhood is not something the women delivering this message can speak about from personal experience. This tension drew me to attend the event in person in Grapevine, Texas, from June 9 to 11.
Much to my surprise, the first thing I saw when I pulled up to the venue was a massive pride flag. In his opening speech, TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk described his unsuccessful efforts to have the flag taken down: “I tried my best to take down the flag everybody,” he said. The crowd responded with cheers. “I failed, OK? I’m sorry. I tried my best. I know you were all thinking it, right? What is that all about? By the way, this hotel better do something or we’re going to find another hotel because I’m not going to come back, this is ridiculous.”
The conference featured an exhibition hall with booths selling “dump your liberal boyfriend” sweatshirts from a right-wing dating app founded by a former Trump White House staffer, career recruitment for Turning Point USA and Turning Point Faith, and bedazzled purses shaped like guns. The bathrooms were decked out with advertisements for a gender-exclusionary tampon brand. Virtually all surfaces, including the elevator doors, were covered in the themed TPUSA aesthetic.
Alex Clark, host of Turning Point USA’s podcasts directed at young women and the face of this event, opened the conference with what can only be described as an angry, judgmental lecture, titled “The Top 4 Lies of Modern Feminism.” She opened by asking, “Young Women’s Leadership Summit, are you ready to see this degenerate rotten culture that we’ve been living in get a makeover?” After applause, she praised the audience’s themed outfits. Fair is fair -- there were some good ones out there.
For the next 30 minutes, she launched into a winding, pseudo-academic diatribe about the four lies of modern feminism, which according to Clark are birth control, abortion, fertility care, and day care. She has staked her brand in part on spreading misinformation about birth control -- it’s a regular feature of her podcasts POPlitics and The Spillover, as well as her prolific Instagram presence.
She asked the audience, “Who in this room has decided to ditch hormonal birth control?” Very few hands went up. “Wow,” she responded, following up by asking, “How many of you are considering ditching hormonal birth control?” Even fewer hands went up. Just a few minutes into her speech she lost the room, and it got worse from there.
Attacking abortion and fertility care are not unique to Clark’s brand, but her opposition to day care is both a new and relatively isolated stance, and it didn’t land with the YWLS crowd. It was on this topic that her speech veered from sleepy to bizarre. She described it as her “spiciest take,” saying that “a lot of mothers in the ‘70s” (the decade was the conference’s theme) “who desired freedom and flexibility or who didn’t necessarily have a support system were oblivious to the fact that the solutions presented to them as safe, liberating or harmless were anything but. And one of those solutions was day care.” After an awkward pause, she added, “It just got real uncomfy. Did you feel that shift?”
Clark claimed, “The feminist movement is in large part to blame for the fracturing of the traditional home, where women were coerced outside of their natural roles as mothers into the workforce.” She went on: “The feminist movement gave way to the notion that a woman could have her cake and eat it too. You can have the career you want and you can raise your children in a positive, educational environment, aka day care.” She described it as “a lie to tell women that we can have it all.” Just because day care is “normal or common doesn’t mean it’s right,” according to Clark.
Not only is Clark a highly successful political commentator with two podcasts and the face of a yearly conference, she is also, as she noted in her own speech, not a mother. Even more bizarrely, she was not giving opening remarks to a conference for mothers.
Kirk spoke next, telling the audience that women have a tendency to be “cliquey” and “mean,” unlike men, to encourage networking at the event.
The TPUSA founder then pivoted to the normal slop that someone hears if they have the misfortune of tuning in to his daily radio show, railing against a “social contagion that is spreading the country at a rapid pace that disguises itself as transgenderism and it is accelerating, it is not slowing down.” He told the audience, “We have seen an all-out, deliberate, concentrated, non-stop, relentless assault on women in this country” by “creepy, narcissistic freaks who think they are men wearing dresses to compete in sports against many of you.”
After establishing that “women are more agreeable than men,” Kirk told his audience they must “be disagreeable” in attacking the humanity of transgender people, who he called “creepy men that have deep-seated mental problems that need treatment.”
Throughout the weekend, attacks on transgender people consistently garnered the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers.
Lara Trump and Laura Ingraham finished up the first day of the conference. Lara Trump skirted around the massive elephant in the room -- her father-in-law’s stunning indictment on espionage charges relating to his handling of classified documents in his post-presidency. Her only remarks on the topic consisted of boilerplate talking points about some amorphous authority persecuting her father-in-law to stop him from becoming president again.
Like virtually every other speaker, Lara Trump attacked transgender athletes, and used the topic to draw attention to her own body: “I’ve been an athlete for most of my life. You might notice my legs are very muscular. I still do a little working out on the side, you know, I’ve got to stay in shape.”
Laura Ingraham’s remarks barely merit a mention, except for her puzzling comments on supermodel Gisele Bündchen. “It’s far easier to live in a society that encourages modesty than to live in a society that encourages women to show it all, flaunt it all, all the time,” she said. “Who can ever keep up with that? By the way, other than maybe Gisele Bündchen, who really does look good in a thong bathing suit on the beach? Sorry, you’ve got to be a special type of person who looks good in that.”
Fundamentalist podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey opened day two of the conference. She, unsurprisingly, struck a notably more pointed Christian extremist tone than the other speakers, though religious rhetoric was ubiquitous throughout the conference. “I can tell you what your highest calling is,” she said. It’s not to have a career, “it’s not even to be a wife and a mom, as wonderful as those things are. Your highest calling is to glorify God.”
Podcaster and Turning Point USA personality Benny Johnson followed, and used much of his time to tell the audience of college and high school girls to “become a woman of value.” Calling out women who say they have trouble finding a partner, he asked, “Have you behaved like a great woman that would attract a great man?”
“Have you been a great woman? There ain’t nothing wrong with being a trad wife. Being a trad wife’s based. Men love this.”
Naturally, the idea that elections are being stolen from Republicans also permeated the conference. Real America’s Voice host Gina Loudon sympathized with the young audience about how much they have “endured” in recent years: “You’ve had your country stolen, you’ve had an election stolen, you’ve had your restrooms taken over by men who say they’re women and you’ve had your entire gender completely, just, undermined.”
The only person who spoke more than once at the Young Women’s Leadership Summit was Kirk, who returned to the stage on day two for a Q&A session. One question during the session came from a college student involved with Turning Point USA on her campus, who said she is working toward her dream career in orthopedic surgery.
The exchange almost perfectly distilled the overarching message of the weekend. The audience member told Kirk that she is career-driven and has not thought much about marriage or starting a family. She asked if he had advice to give to “somebody who so badly wants to succeed in surgery,” but will be 30 years old before she has time to think about “settling down.”
Kirk’s answer was straightforward and clear: “You’re going to have to choose which one matters more.” He then told her to spend a couple of days with infants and see how she feels afterward, and stressed that she may run out of time to find a husband if she focuses on her career throughout her 20s.
Kirk told her that “there are a lot of successful, 35-year-old orthopedic surgeons that have cats, and not kids, and they’re very miserable."
This is one of the fundamental contradictions of the Young Women’s Leadership Summit and Turning Point USA’s recruitment of young women overall. If the main message for this audience — many of whom identified themselves as leaders of campus TPUSA chapters — is that they should leave politics to men, seek fulfillment exclusively in the domestic sphere, and focus on indoctrinating a litter of children into an ideology of hate and victimhood, then most of the organization’s activity is irrelevant to its female members.
In the early evening, Owens closed day two. Her walkout was met with the loudest cheers and applause of the entire weekend.
She framed her remarks around the idea that women have a biological predisposition to sentimentality, motherhood, and nurturing.
“Your emotions and your nurturing are meant for those relationships in your life that mean the most,” Owens said. “You will see it — you will become a tiger, you will become a bear when you have children,” adding bleakly, “The reason that you fight, the reason that you get up in the morning, the reason that you breathe will become so clear. You will never be more sure of yourself when you realize that there is something inside of you that just knows what to do with a child.” She assumed that members of the audience “already experience that.”
According to Owens, the left has used the media to manipulate these natural female instincts. Her message to this group of “young women leaders” in the conservative movement: “Every ill that we are fighting right now in society has been brought forth by women.”
Setting aside Owens’ extremely misogynistic message, we can look at the pillars of her own life for a moment. She is a woman who you might say “has it all”: a career, a public platform, and a family. But she presents herself as if she appeared on stage to roaring adoration by accident, her authority stemming from her status as a model mother, and not because of a single-minded ambition to get famous through a Faustian bargain with conservative media.
As I write this, the third day of the conference has begun. The speakers are the weekend’s afterthought: failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, anti-trans former swimmer Riley Gaines, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), among others. By now the narrative of the weekend is clear: there is a very narrow vision of what a fulfilled woman's life can consist of and an extremely limited set of acceptable aspirations. If you don’t want to give up everything else to have children and marry a Christian man, something is fundamentally, biologically, biblically wrong with you. Charlie Kirk recommends you pray about it.
The things that went unsaid were notable, too -- former President Donald Trump’s indictment on federal charges, perhaps one of the biggest stories of any post-presidential period in American history, was hardly mentioned, despite the massive reaction in the broader right-wing universe. Current events, news, politics, struggles over justice and power -- these things were not deemed relevant to the audience at the Young Women’s Leadership Summit. It was all identity, all the time -- no substance, just aesthetics and grievance.