Women Have Actually Been at the Center of Anti-Feminism for Decades

Religious scholar Emily Johnson spoke to Observer about women’s contributions to the anti-feminist movement.

Even now, feminists are still being questioned by religious groups and others, particularly pertaining to the controversial conversation surrounding reproductive rights. SSPL/Getty Images

Since the 1970s, the United States feminist movement has opened people’s eyes to inequalities facing residents in the country. Of course, the first-wave feminists have experienced criticism from modern day activists, pointing out the emphasis on cis-white women leading the charge. Now, in 2019, the feminist movement has grown in volumes, reveling in victories, such as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the more recent 2017 Women’s March.

The first-wave feminism movement has been rightfully scrutinized by its peers, but even now, feminists are still being questioned by religious groups and others, particularly pertaining to the controversial conversation surrounding reproductive rights. Following the slew of anti-abortion bills which have recently been introduced, and passed, within the United States, people are questioning whether the future of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. Current events have kicked the conversation into full gear, but most of the fingers pointing out who’s to blame are leaving out one huge factorwomen’s role in the anti-feminist movement.

SEE ALSO: The History of the Women’s Rights Movement in 18 Images

Religious scholar Emily Johnson explores women’s contributions to the far-right Christian movement and their anti-feminist fight in her new book This Is Our Message, currently available through Oxford University Press. While in school, Johnson noticed how textbooks failed to highlight women’s activism in the conservative Christian movement and decided to explore it herself. Growing up in a religiously diverse household, Johnson was already familiar with conservative Evangelical ideals from her grandmother. However, by examining the lives of familiar figures such as Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Beverly LaHaye, Tammy Faye Bakker, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, Johnson introduces readers to the history behind a movement that we might not, or might be too scared to, understand.

In the anti-feminist movement, most people assume men are leading the charge. How have women contributed significantly?
A big argument these women made in the 1970s, and that is still being made, is that there are certain views that women are well-suited to address. A big premise of Evangelical theology is that men and women are naturally biologically different and have different interests and needs. They believe that all women have a strong maternal instinct. So, in the abortion debate, feminists frame that as being an issue that’s going to attract women more than men. Feminists will say that this is a woman’s issue and that all women deserve, the implication wanting, access to abortion. On the other side, conservative women will say that this is a woman’s issue, all women are fundamentally mothers and have the soul of a mother, so they know that abortion is wrong and they know that in their hearts better than men do. Abortion is a really interesting one because you see these fundamentally different ideas on what it means to be a woman.

So what would Evangelical women’s response be to women who have chosen not to have children?
I think the general idea in the movement is that it’s really sad when women choose not to be mothers. That rhetoric has toned down a little over time, but it was a main talking point for Beverly LaHaye in the 1980s. For her, one of the main failings of feminism was that it focused too much on women’s self-actualization and not enough on the family. She believed that feminists had convinced women that they couldn’t be mothers and be successful, and that a lot of women were missing out on motherhood because of that mistaken belief.

In your book, you point out one of the main reasons women were against feminism was because it threatened traditional gender roles. Why were women so attached to these ideals?
The women that I study in my book all had really difficult childhoods. So, I think for them in particular, the idea of traditional family was something that they really wanted and wanted to hold onto. They are pursuing this life that, to them, was a fantasy and has been something that they achieved through really difficult circumstances. Then, they feel like the feminist movement is saying “you can’t do that anymore” and to them that really matters. I don’t think it’s that men led them into this movement; I think they were trying to protect the lives they wanted for themselves and their children.

Oftentimes anti-feminism is perceived as anti-women. How did Evangelical women try to fight against that image?
If this movement was going to openly oppose feminism, it was going to be characterized as anti-woman. So, in Beverly LaHaye’s case, she argued that conservative women had the most important role to play because they had to be out there and be prominent in order to make it impossible for people to say that this was an anti-woman movement. Ultimately, I don’t think she was successful in doing that.

It’s difficult, because you don’t want to take away women’s agency by discrediting their opinions, but how much of it is influenced by their upbringing or men in their lives who hold these beliefs?
I think that’s a question we could ask about anybody’s political beliefs. We’re influenced by our upbringing and the people around us. However, I think these really are sincere political beliefs that are held by these women. In the 1970s, in particular, a lot of women joined the conservative religious side of the movement because they felt like feminism was trying to take things away from them that they wanted. They felt like the feminist movement was saying it was bad to be a housewife or it wasn’t respectable anymore. We talk about it as if an anti-feminist mean women aren’t acting in their own interest, but they really are acting in their own interest, they just have a different view of what those interests are.

The conservative Christian and anti-feminist movements have historically been against abortion. How has their activism evolved throughout history?
In terms of abortion, Evangelicals came surprisngly late to that debate. It’s not really until the early/mid 1980s that we see Evangelicals getting involved in abortion at a large scale. One of the big changes we’ve seen is a much more comfortable collaboration between conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals. In the 1970s, that was a real issue.

So, abortion rights influenced collaboration between Christian groups?
Abortion was one of the major issues that brought various groups of conservative Christians together. More than one issue, though, it was a broader sense that the nation was moving away from Christian valueswhich, for them, meant it was moving away from any kind of morality. Abortion was a huge part of this, along with the general sense that feminism and gay rights were becoming mainstream and Christian values were being removed from the schools. As the language of the religious right became increasingly urgent, it became both more permissible and more necessary for disparate groups to work together on issues that they saw as potentially catastrophic.

Tammy Faye Bakker
Scholar Emily Johnson examined the lives of women, such as evangelist and television personality Tammy Faye Bakker, to get a glimpse into the anti-feminist movement. Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Clearly feminism received a lot of criticism from conservative Christian women, but are there other groups of women who have pushed back against the movement?
There’s different kinds of critiques. Black women have said feminism is not for them because it’s a white woman’s movement. Native Canadian women and groups have said that feminism isn’t groomed for some of the gender rituals they have in their communities which are really important to themso feminism doesn’t speak to them. Or, they say that feminism is too tied with colonialism and imperialism. So when you think of conservative feminism in light of those critiques, it’s so much more interesting to interrogate what the history of feminism is in terms of claiming and failing to speak for all women. What’s at stake in saying that feminism speaks for all women? Who are we speaking over? To what extent are we comfortable with speaking over groups of people? Thinking of those things together raises super interesting questions about the movement.

Most of the women featured in your book vehemently denied that their actions were political. However, while their fight was toward anti-feminst causes, isn’t speaking out publicly in itself a feminist action?
They would reject the idea that women’s empowerment is necessarily feminist. It is interesting, because it does happen simultaneously with feminists insisting on a more public role for women in other arenas. Part of it does reflect the success of feminism in insisting on representation, and the conservative movement responds to that because they know that their movement is not going to be taken seriously if its only spokespeople are men. Even among people who are explicitly opposed to the feminist movement, we see how feminism is shifting the framework.

Have conservative Christians become more comfortable embracing political activism?
In general, yes. In the 1970s, a lot of conservative Christians, women and men, were uncomfortable with the idea of political activism. For them, the idea of an “activist” was firmly associated with the anti-Vietnam war movement, feminism and other movements on the left. Some people who later became prominent in the new Christian Right had even been critical of ministers in the civil rights movement for “mixing religion and politics.” This was something that the movement had to work through in its early decades, and it did that through a language of urgency. The nation’s rapid moral decline, as they saw it, had become too critical to ignore. Now, 40 years later, the idea of conservative Christian involvement in politics is established; it’s familiar. Conservative Christians today are coming up in a culture in which many churches have wholeheartedly embraced activism on socially conservative issues as a part of their mission, which makes it easier for women and men to see their religious and political beliefs as being intertwined. Issues like abortion are often seen as issues that women have an especial stake in,  so there’s less of a barrier to their involvement than there might have been in the past. This is why it’s so important to understand how this movement began to define itself in the 1970s and 1980s; it set the stage for a mass mobilization of conservative Christians and for the really important role that conservative Christians play in American politics today.

Following Alabama passing its controversial bill that nearly totally bans abortion, the men who voted to pass the legislation were widely featured in the media. However, the bill was not only signed by female Governor Kay Ivey, but was also sponsored by female Alabama Representative Terri Collins. In your opinion, why do men receive so much media attention in the anti-abortion debate as opposed to women?
I think there are a few things going on here. First, although women have always had leadership roles in this movement, they have framed those roles in ways that make them harder to recognize. So conservative women often talk about their politics as an extension of their roles as mothers, for example, rather than really forcefully claiming political leadership in ways that are easier to recognize. Part of this failure to recognize them is sexist on our part; as a society, we define leadership in terms of familiar male roles and so only recognize women’s leadership when women are leaders in the roles and in the ways that we expect men to be. Second, there’s also a fundamental misunderstanding about this movement, which is that men are the leaders and that women are uniformly oppressed within the culture and unable to recognize or express their own interests. This is also sexist. Finally, the idea that men are leading “a war against women” fits into an existing narrative that we’re all very comfortable with. It’s easier to think about this issue as just “men vs. women,” but the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Recognizing conservative women’s leadership and active engagement in the anti-abortion movement, and other socially conservative movements, requires us to rethink a lot of firmly held assumptions about women’s interests and women’s activism.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about women in this movement?
A question I get asked a lot is “why do women vote against their own interests?” I think it’s really important to understand that nobody votes against their own interests, and if we think that’s what they’re trying to do, then we haven’t understood what their interests are, according to them. Trying to understand a person doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but I don’t think we can get anywhere without trying to understand each other.

Do you think conservative Christian women are trying to understand feminism though?
No. I think, on both sides, most debates in this country have people mischaracterizing their political opponents. I don’t think anybody is doing a very good job.

Women Have Actually Been at the Center of Anti-Feminism for Decades