In September 1983, Beverly LaHaye gave a press conference in Washington, DC, to announce that her four-year-old lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) was about to become a force to be reckoned with in the nation’s capital. “This is our message: The feminists do not speak for all women in America,” she asserted.
From its new home in Washington, LaHaye promised that CWA would continue to fight against the notion that all women supported a feminist agenda, including things like legal abortion, sex education in public schools, and acceptance of nontraditional families. Struggling against the idea that social conservatism was “antiwoman,” LaHaye sought to prove that the religious right actually represented the true interests of most American women.
Nationally prominent women like LaHaye played pivotal roles in building and sustaining the modern religious right as it coalesced into a self-conscious national movement in the 1970s and 1980s. They focused predominantly, though not exclusively, on issues designed to appeal to women in their roles as wives and mothers. In doing so, they helped to ensure that gender and sexuality would be the central issues around which the developing movement revolved. They positioned themselves against contemporary feminism and insisted that feminism did not represent the interests of all women. As they sought to make Christian conservatism more appealing to women, the very fact of their leadership demonstrated that the movement was more than just a network of angry white men upset at losing their privilege in the face of gains by feminists and civil rights activists.
White women’s grassroots support was critical to the success of conservative movements in the United States. In the decades following the Second World War, conservative women organized opposition to changes in the public schools, including the introduction of sex education, the elimination of mandatory school prayer, and desegregation. They spoke out against perceived communist influence and government overreach in their communities, which they discerned in programs to fluoridate water, to expand mental health services, and to vaccinate children against polio. They rallied other women by organizing coffee meetings in their homes, by publishing and distributing newsletters, and by repurposing their Christmas card lists for the distribution of political literature. They were active in parent-teacher associations and they ran for positions on their local school boards. They famously campaigned as “Goldwater Girls” in 1964. Across the country and across a broad range of issues, right-wing women organized, energized, and helped set the agenda for a developing conservative populism that emphasized small government, “color-blind” meritocracy, and the protection of traditionalist social values.
However, we know a great deal less about the ways in which these movements fundamentally relied on women’s leadership at the national level. Where the names of some nationally prominent conservative women are widely recognized, they tend to be understood as lone figures in a movement characterized by male leadership and female grassroots support. These women’s individual contributions have been understudied, but more than that, the movement’s reliance on women’s national leadership has been overlooked.
In my new book, This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, I focus on the massive mobilization of conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, while asserting that women’s national leadership in the New Christian Right was not anomalous and that it was not accidental. In fact, the national prominence of conservative women was critical to the development and success of the modern religious right. In the particular case of evangelical conservatism, women’s national leadership was a function of the movement’s development through existing church networks and through a growing evangelical subculture that emphasized women’s special authority on issues related to family and sexuality. Understanding women’s national leadership in this movement, then, is necessary to understanding the history of the movement and its continued influence.
The New Christian Right’s emphasis on “traditional family values” was in part a response to political movements on the left—including gay liberation and second-wave feminism—and in part a rearticulation of long-standing theological traditions that proclaimed gender hierarchy to be God-given, and the nuclear family to be the essential building block of a healthy nation. These ideals often limited women’s contributions within their communities, but women were never only passive recipients of patriarchal theological mandates. Over the centuries, Christian women have continually negotiated subtly shifting theologies of gender and family while also carving out positions of authority for themselves. The history of women’s leadership within American Protestantism has been dominated by the figures of the itinerant preacher or missionary, the maternalist reformer, and the Christian wife and mother. These have sometimes been discrete categories, but they have often overlapped with each other and with the political realm. Aimee Semple McPherson, for example, made her name as one of the most famous American evangelists of the 1920s, and often used her celebrity and her multimedia empire to champion political candidates and causes. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservative Protestant women wove together elements of all these precedents—knowingly and unknowingly—as they established new forms of cultural and political authority in their own communities and on the national stage.
During the decades of New Christian Right ascendancy, in the context of a movement centered on defining and preserving traditional gender roles, no ministry headed by a solo female preacher gained national renown. Yet prominent women did emerge within the movement, and they drew on many of the same justifications for their work that had characterized the rhetoric of female evangelical preachers for centuries. Female preachers have long emphasized a special calling from God to justify their authority while also implicitly acknowledging the strangeness of their role. Many insisted on their initial unwillingness to preach and some even narrated experiences of serious illnesses that were cured only when they agreed to follow God’s call. These stories invariably underscored that the speaker had wanted to conform to prevailing ideas about women’s limited roles in church and society but that God had forcefully compelled her into the public sphere. Similarly, prominent women in the New Christian Right often highlighted their initial trepidation about stepping into either leadership or politics. Nearly all of them related in great detail the prayers to God and conversations with husbands and (male) pastors that tortuously, finally convinced them to take on these responsibilities.
For at least two hundred years, female preachers in the United States have also drawn attention to the particular feminine qualities that made them ideal religious leaders. Drawing on contemporary understandings of women’s roles, female preachers in the nineteenth century argued that women’s innate morality made them strong religious authorities while their natural affability made them particularly adept at preaching. They also emphasized their marginality as a boon to their authority, drawing in particular on examples of Old Testament prophets and early church martyrs as quintessential outsiders. Similar strategies have deep roots in the history of women’s activism. Nineteenth-century reformers and suffragists argued that women’s active political engagement would “clean up” corrupt governments and shift diplomatic priorities toward peacemaking. Postwar conservative women asserted that women’s status as political outsiders made them ideal reformers and populist visionaries. In the New Christian Right, nationally prominent women emphasized their concerns as mothers and wives in framing their political priorities. They also drew on the notion of conservative women as political outsiders to characterize their goals as noble and family-centered in contrast to the politically motivated machinations of cynical feminists.
Female preachers and political activists provided two templates for women’s political leadership in the New Christian Right; traditions of women’s lay authority within the church offered another. Despite a pattern of women’s preaching stretching back over three centuries, female preachers have always been a small minority among conservative Christian women. Persistent efforts to preserve traditional gender roles in official church hierarchies have tended to limit women’s official leadership in these contexts, but have also made room for women’s authority in other arenas, particularly as Sunday School teachers, foreign missionaries, and the leaders of Bible study meetings for other women. Women have always made up the majority in American Protestant pews, and their leadership in these arenas was often necessary for churches to run smoothly. Over time, many denominations adopted the general rule that women could serve in positions of leadership as long as they did not claim authority over men of an equal or superior social or economic class.
As evangelical churches experienced explosive growth in the second half of the twentieth century, specific evangelical women’s ministries also expanded. Growing evangelical churches began to host targeted ministries for a variety of demographic groups, with women commonly organizing Bible studies, retreats, luncheons, and mentorship programs dedicated to women’s interests and needs. These endeavors offered women unique spaces within their churches to organize and lead a wide range of programs and events, though often limited to an emphasis on wifehood and motherhood.
Women’s parachurch organizations, unmoored to any specific church, also flourished during this period. Annual women’s conferences hosted by denominations and interdenominational groups proliferated, often hosting female authors and speakers who built careers as public figures in these forums. The largest and best known of these groups is the Women’s Aglow Fellowship, which was founded in 1967 and grew through the 1970s and 1980s to include annual conventions, a dedicated magazine, and hundreds of local chapters with regular meetings throughout the year. As ethnographer and historian R. Marie Griffith—the editor of Religion & Politics—has argued, these spaces have served to educate women in traditionalist gender norms while simultaneously providing opportunities to air grievances, build support networks, and negotiate the boundaries of those norms.
The growth of national women’s ministries like Aglow were accompanied by a more general expansion of evangelical women’s culture in the second half of the twentieth century. As evangelical ministries proliferated during this period, so too did conferences, books, periodicals, and other products specifically for evangelical women. This development was an outgrowth of evangelical women’s church ministries as well as a canny strategy on the part of Christian merchandisers seeking to expand and compete in an increasingly saturated marketplace. Christian publishers led the way, diversifying their catalogues to include a variety of niche genres written by and for laypeople. In particular, editors increasingly sought out women to write on issues related to gender, family, and the home. These books built on the success of growing national women’s ministries and offered conservative Christian women an alternative to contemporary feminist communities and ideas. The genre proved profitable for Christian publishers, and the production of evangelical nonfiction written by and for women grew throughout the twentieth century.
These were not the only outlets of evangelical women’s culture during this period. In 1978, the evangelical publishing company Fleming H. Revell began distribution of Today’s Christian Woman, marketed as the “first ever full-sized Christian feature magazine for women.” That same year, televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker introduced Tammy’s House Party, one of the first Christian television programs that catered to a specifically female audience. Some of these developments were directed by men, including the editors at major Christian publishing houses who sought out female authors beginning in the 1950s and launched Today’s Christian Woman two decades later. But women were also prominent figures in a culture that relied on and promoted women’s expertise. Christian celebrities like Dale Evans Rogers and Anita Bryant, authors like Marabel Morgan, and broadcasters like Tammy Faye Bakker played essential roles in shaping the development of an evangelical women’s culture that in turn helped to shape the rhetoric and priorities of the broader evangelical movement.
As with women’s ministries, other aspects of Christian women’s cultural production during this period served to socialize women into traditionalist gender roles while also providing space for women to negotiate the boundaries of traditionalist gender systems. In publications, broadcasts, discussion groups, and conferences, evangelical women discussed their difficulties conforming to the doctrine of wifely submission, which instructed women to submit to their husbands just as their husbands should submit to God. Prominent evangelical women during this period subtly redefined that doctrine even as they propagated it. By the late twentieth century, many evangelical ministries had moved away from a strict emphasis on submission and toward a doctrine of complementarianism, which asserts that men and women have different but equally important roles and emphasizes their mutual submission to God.
The explosive growth of a national subculture of conservative evangelicals— reading the same books, attending the same conferences, and listening to the same mail-order tapes—had significant consequences for the development of the New Christian Right. It created new kinds of opportunities for men and women to claim authority and national recognition among conservative evangelicals. For women in particular, the expansion of evangelical women’s ministries on a new scale and in new media brought expanded opportunities to claim leadership roles in their communities without overstepping the bounds of conservative Christian womanhood. Even more significant, this subculture helped to lay the groundwork for the New Christian Right by establishing new national networks of conservative Christians and by inculcating them in the political assumptions of the developing movement, even in purportedly apolitical spaces.
Nationally prominent women in these subcultures helped to shape the gender politics of a burgeoning movement. In deciding whether to claim explicitly political roles, they also contributed to a shifting understanding of the relationship between religion, family, and politics in the late twentieth-century United States. Some prominent women actively denied their political involvement while others stepped decisively into the political sphere. Yet all of these women engaged in politically charged debates over issues such as gender roles, reproductive rights, and the role of the government in family life. As authorities within evangelical subcultures, they helped to shape the political priorities of a developing movement, and they were able to reach audiences that were politically engaged as well as those that were not. Their work offers insight into the rise of the New Christian Right in the 1970s and women’s complicated roles within it. In particular, their careful choices about when and whether to acknowledge their work as political helped them to maintain their authority in conservative communities without overstepping their bounds as women. These choices helped them to galvanize conservative Christians and to mobilize those who were uncomfortable with contemporary cultural changes but also uneasy about thinking of themselves as political activists.
Conservative Christian women continue to negotiate the boundaries of the political realm and the propriety of their engagement with formal political activism. Even at the height of the New Christian Right’s ascendancy in the 1980s, prominent figures like Tammy Faye Bakker—who vocally opposed abortion, showed compassion in the midst of the early AIDS crisis, and counted President Ronald Reagan among her acquaintances—refused to identify as politically engaged. The relationship between religion and politics is still a hotly debated topic in conservative Christian communities, and the mixture of the two continues to be an especially fraught prospect for conservative Christian women struggling to maintain a commitment to traditionalist gender ideologies. Thus, many forums of evangelical women’s culture— including fiction and nonfiction, conferences and retreats, periodicals and blogs—in which family roles are openly discussed and gender ideologies are openly debated continue to avoid identifying these issues as predominantly political in nature.
Beverly LaHaye stepped down as acting president of CWA in 2006, after holding the office for 27 years. The organization maintains a forceful presence in national politics, however, with active lobbying, research, and media arms in Washington, D.C., as well as several energetic state offices involved in local and national activism across the country. The organization also offers important opportunities for conservative women interested in political careers, through internships and paid employment as well as public endorsements of conservative candidates.
Christian conservatives continue to be a powerful force in American politics on the local, state, and national levels. The rhetoric of “family values” and “traditional gender roles” continues to resonate at the heart of this movement. Observers unfamiliar with this movement frequently dismiss these ideologies as cynical, insincere, or over-simplistic but these critiques fail to engage the complex and deeply held belief systems at the core of the modern religious right. Similarly, to dismiss this movement as simply patriarchal or anti-woman is to ignore the millions of women who attend conservative Christian churches, who support conservative Christian organizations, and who vote for conservative Christian candidates. Only by attempting to fully understand conservative Christian gender and family politics, and by recognizing the essential roles that women play in supporting this movement, can we hope to truly comprehend this pivotal historical and political force.
Emily Johnson is an assistant professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Her research and teaching focus on the recent histories of gender, religion, and political culture in the United States. Her work has been featured in Religion and Politics, as well as a variety of other venues, including The Washington Post.